By Tina Dirmann
staff writer for BCBSLA Foundation
Alisha Johnson, development coordinator for Edible Schoolyard of New Orleans, and Mat Schwarzman, project director for GRoW and director for New Orleans Kids Partnership.
A few old bath tubs, a discarded bathroom sink, some worn-out tires… These may not sound like the makings of a wondrous open garden for kids to learn and play. But clearly, you’ve never been to The Dream Keeper Garden at Langston Hughes Academy (grades K-8), where those tossed-away items are now creative flower pots, colorful bird baths and productive produce beds. And suddenly, the kids (and adults) who live in this mostly urban area of NOLA have a garden oasis, to plant, play and generally exhale for a moment.
At least, that’s how the folks who showed up for garden day (Sept. 28) described it when they turned out early that morning, ready to spend the afternoon tending to this very special site. Among those grabbing gardening gloves and ready to dig-in? Langston’s kids, students from Tulane, Loyola, Xavier, members of the Unitarian Community Church, and, of course, our own representative from GRoW (a Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana grant supported program).
“We don’t invent programs,” said Mat Schwarzman, project leader for GRoW (Great Resources WhereY’at) and director for New Orleans Kids Partnership. “We act as a kind of glue to encourage and help existing programs work in closer alignment with one another, leading to lower costs and greater impact. We enable them do what they already do, better.”
On this day, GRoW partnered with Hands On Nola, which provides opportunities for volunteering in the New Orleans region. Hands On Nola, in turn, expanded their work with Edible Schoolyard, a non-profit dedicated to nutrition education and changing the way kids eat. Last week’s community garden day was a result of their coordinated efforts.
“This is an open garden day,” said Kelly Miranda, a volunteer coordinator for Edible Schoolyard. “And the point is to make this garden available to anyone who wants to work, pulling weeds and produce and watering, or maybe just sit on a bench and enjoy being outside and being together. Some come here to work hard and get their hands dirty. But some just enjoy meeting other people in the community.”
And while the Dream Garden was once made up of mostly salvaged junk from our post-Katrina world, the program has since grown to include everything from live chickens and rabbits to gardening materials used for maintaing a healthy produce garden. The peppers, watermelons, okra, kale and other veggies produced here either go home with students and volunteers, or they end up as part of a cooking class for the school.
Langston Assistant Principal Carrie Bevans said she’s already seen the changes in her younger students, who are getting used to seeing produce sprout right out of the ground.
“Our older kids, they won’t touch it or it’s harder to coax them into trying something,” said Bevans. “But our younger ones, I’ve seen them pick a pepper right off the plant and eat it.”
For Schwarzman, he just hopes the kids he works with will come by and really have fun getting in the dirt and pulling up a veggies for that night’s dinner.
“Because kids today, and people in general, have enormous choices for what to do with their free time,” Schwarzman said. “So, the only way to make these healthy changes happen and make them stick is to make having a healthy lifestyle fun and social. That’s the entire point of GRoW — different ways to make living healthy social and fun. We want to set up a system where you’d have to be crazy not to want to be here and be a part of what’s happening! Because it’s not only good for you — it’s fun, too!”