On the Road with WhyHunger: Education and Food Justice in the Lower Ninth Ward

Report from New Orleans, prior to the 2010 Community Food Security Coalition conference.

By Tristan Quinn-Thibodeau

The connections between food, agriculture, and education were on display in New Orleans, and I saw a diversity of positive approaches. Like Edible Schoolyard and the Green Elementary Charter School, Our School at Blair Grocery (OSBG) is also connecting education with community food security and urban farms in New Orleans. But because OSBG exists in the Lower Ninth Ward in a much different context than Edible Schoolyard and with different needs and assets, it takes on a much different shape and scope.

The Lower Ninth Ward, first of all, is abandoned, both by the city government and institutions as well as by its old residents. It is physically isolated from the rest of the city, separated by the canal connecting Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River and connected only by two bridges, and symbolically isolated from the rest of the city in that it has received little money or effort from the city to rebuild. Because of its isolation and the sheer absence of services of any kind (only one school and one grocery store exist in over 1.5 square miles of New Orleans), many former residents of the Lower Ninth, like seniors, simply cannot move back—there is nothing for them there. In this context of almost complete governmental pullback and abandonment, the necessity of linking education with developing communities through agriculture becomes evident in the work of Our School at Blair Grocery.

Our School at Blair Grocery works with mostly teens that the New Orleans school system has failed. Operating essentially as a large home school, which is allowed by New Orleans education law, OSBG gives students (who at this time are mostly high-schoolers) an alternative education in social studies, business, critical thinking, art, and community development. A large part of the students’ education consists in operating a small farm business, growing microgreens for sale to local restaurants and food for the community, since land is plentiful and food in great need. The students also get a stipend for their work. However, I realized that the real importance of the school wasn’t that it provided food or a job to the students or community. Josh’s story highlighted the critical role that OSBG is playing in some kids’ lives that may make the difference in their ability to grow into educated young adults inspired to live a life of opportunity.

Nat Turner, a former middle school teacher from NYC and the founder of OSBG, told our work group that one of his students, Josh, a great artist, had been skipping classes at his high school to spend all of his time at the art school where he took part-time classes. Charged with truancy, Josh was facing prison time before Turner intervened and enrolled him at Our School at Blair Grocery, where he was able to use his creativity and design skills, even coining the name for the school (Josh suggested calling it “Our School” rather than “The School”. OSBG uses the old Blair grocery building, one of the last, though closed since the 1980’s, grocery stores and oldest black-owned business in the Lower Ninth Ward). I realized that OSBG was more than a job or community food project and even more than a school, but was a real place for building individual and community power.

In fact, Turner and the OSBG staff and volunteers are not just continuing this project to improve the Lower Ninth Ward, but are actually a national center for education and convergence on social movement building, progressive education, and small-scale, intensive urban farming. Over the summer, Our School brought in over 500 students and young organizers from around the country to learn how to educate and organize communities into a movement in the context of racism, class division, and geographical or spatial injustice. And Turner is working with Will Allen and Growing Power as one of Growing Power’s Regional Outreach Training Centers, for which OSBG was outfitted with aquaculture, hoophouses, and vertical growing beds.

OSBG really showed everyone on the work trip to the Lower Ninth just what people on the land could do when they could exercise their autonomy and build community. Growing food led to education, which led to community building, which is now becoming movement building. If this isn’t inspiring, coming from the Lower Ninth Ward, I don’t know what is.