Our School at Blair Grocery: Achieving the Impossible in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward
NEW ORLEANS — Last weekend, I visited Our School at Blair Grocery, an alternative, hands-on school and non-profit organization focused on teaching youth in the Lower Ninth Ward the principles of urban farming and sustainability. Our School at Blair Grocery is not just some agricultural magnet school. Rather, it is a place of hope and empowerment for youth in one of the nation’s most impoverished and crime-ridden communities — the hardest hit in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina.
I first learned about the Blair Grocery initiative when it was covered in the New York Times last month. See: New Orleans School Sows Seeds in Lower 9th Ward. I was moved by the story and shared it with a friend who is a New Orleans resident.
A couple weeks later, I received an invitation on Facebook to a talk in Gainesville by someone with a familiar name, Nat Turner. Turner, as he prefers to be called, is the founder of Our School at Blair Grocery. At the event, he told of his journey from public school teacher in New York City to pioneer of one of the nation’s most inspiring urban agriculture initiatives in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward.
Dissatisfied with his job in New York, Turner moved to New Orleans to help with the restoration effort after Katrina. He described a period of uncertainty where he knew he wanted to make a positive impact but was not sure how to apply himself. Given a little time and a number of revelations — including the reminder that, whoa, food comes from the ground! — Turner taught himself all he could about growing organic vegetables. Meanwhile, he began offering free tutoring sessions to kids in the Lower Ninth Ward out of his now-iconic blue school bus, and acquired a plot of land from an old, rundown grocery store to convert to a school. That, in a nutshell, is how Our School at Blair Grocery was born.
Although class was not in session when I visited, it was evident that the school is a thriving enterprise. Upon arriving with a couple of friends, we were greeted by a group of people who were laboring to renovate the building’s exterior. After knocking on the classroom door expecting to find Turner and perhaps a few others, I was startled to see 10 or 15 adults turn their heads toward us as we interrupted a strategy meeting.
Turner was kind enough to take a break from the meeting and show us around. The tour began at the giant compost heap, which is comprised of food scraps that are acquired free from local restaurants and grocery stores. The scraps in the pile decompose and are then fed to worms to produce nutrient-rich castings. “Everybody poops, but worms poop gold,” Turner joked. This golden poop is the lifeblood of all of the crops grown at the school.
The compost pile was an appropriate starting point for the tour, given that compost is, as a hand-painted sign on the property reads, “the foundation of our food system and thus, the source of all LIFE.”
We were then shown inside one of the school’s many small greenhouses (or “hoop houses”), which contain shelves of sprouts that are sold at $20 per pound to high-end food establishments in New Orleans, including Whole Foods and Emeril’s Restaurant. The sprouts are an easy sell because businesses love the idea of supporting local food and disadvantaged children, Turner said. This revenue is an important source of funding for the school, along with earnings from a weekly farmers’ market, which we also attended on Sunday.
It is clear that Our School at Blair Grocery is deeply driven to not only produce local food (and tons of it), but to enrich the lives of young people in the process. We were not fortunate enough to meet any of the students — since class is in session Monday through Thursday, and we visited on Friday — yet their presence was evident in the youthful character of the school. The school walls are painted with inspirational quotations and the property is adorned with signs that teach human values.
The students also play a role in tending the many garden beds and rows, and selling the produce to food establishments. They are taught important skills in the process. Composting teaches math, as students calculate the appropriate ratio of green materials to brown materials. Sign-making and sales offer lessons in marketing and entrepreneurship. And the students are quizzed on readings and films about food security and sustainability.
The students work hard, and they reap the rewards. Not only does the school award them fresh produce and a minimum wage — both of which help to support their struggling families — but they are taught that they can be somebody in a world that otherwise regards them as nobodies.
business card of Turner’s teammate Rob
In his talk in Gainesville, Turner spoke of the skeptics and nonbelievers who have little hope for the youth of the Lower Ninth Ward. In a community with such poverty and a serious juvenile crime problem, keeping kids out of trouble — nevermind inspiring them to lead rewarding and successful lives — is next to impossible.
Luckily, to Nat Turner and his team, “impossible” is not a forbidden territory, but an alluring challenge. One that they are seeing through.
“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.” – Muhammad Ali
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