A Different Education: Compost and Community, Not Literacy

A visit to Our School at Blair Grocery, which hopes to empower the youth of New Orleans through food and sustainability

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In the syrupy charm of New Orleans's Garden District or the debauchery of the French Quarter, you might think the city has recovered from the trauma of Katrina. Streetcars are running, music is playing, and tourists have stumbled back with beads on. But in the poorest part of the city, which also happens to be the lowest part, it's a different story. Nearly six years on, only 20 percent of pre-hurricane residents have returned to the Lower Ninth Ward. Citywide, the same percentage of residents had returned only four months after the storm.

Christian Adams, 18, told me he has no idea what happened to most of his friends and former neighbors. We shared a bench behind a washed-out store formerly known as Blair Grocery. Now it's a school: Our School at Blair Grocery (OSBG)—a supportive oasis in a neighborhood that also happens to be a food desert, without easy access to fresh produce.

The air smelled of compost, some of which was splattered on Adams's boots. Other neighborhood teens were planting sprouts, harvesting okra and figs, and screening potting soil.

The school is not accredited, and many of its students can't read. Learning to read is not mandatory, says the school's founder, Nat Turner. "If a student wants to learn to read we'll help them learn. If a student wants to take the GED we'll help them prepare," he told me as we rumbled toward Uptown in a creaky pickup at 6:30 in the morning. Turner is lanky, with endless energy. He smoked a hand-rolled cigarette as he drove, switching topics easily between the likes of compost science, racial politics, and global warming.

We pulled in to the dock behind Whole Foods and loaded about 500 pounds of old produce onto the truck, for OSBG's compost pile. Compost is gold at OSBG. Eventually they'll sell the excess soil they build, but now they need all they can make.

At last count, three-quarters of an acre was under cultivation, including bits of unused land on the adjoining, entirely vacant block. The school is largely funded by produce sales, which average $1,500 a week. High-end restaurants on higher ground pay a premium for the produce, which they sell locally at a discount.

Bert Kreuter and DeRonte Laugand.jpg The school seeks to "create a resource-rich safe space for youth empowerment and sustainable community development," according to its mission. In a neighborhood notorious for violence, it's a place where students can explore their interests, learn skills like blogging, and formulate and pursue goals. But before you can plan where you're going, Turner says, it helps to understand where you are. Local history is an important part of the curriculum. "They learn that things didn't just happen this way, that certain things led up to it."

The Lower Ninth Ward is a basin without a drain, and surrounded by water. The surfaces of the Mississippi River and Industrial Canal both often run higher than ground level in the neighborhood. When Katrina's storm surge pushed in from the Gulf of Mexico, floodwater spilled into the Lower Ninth Ward from three sides, covering many houses completely. The water was finally pumped out 29 days later. Today, most houses in the ward are gone or vacant. Whole blocks remain empty.

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Ari LeVaux writes Flash in the Pan, a syndicated weekly food column that has appeared in more than 50 newspapers in 21 states. Learn more at flashinthepan.net.

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