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Friday, August 27, 2010

Farm Grows in the Lower Ninth (TIME Magazine),28804,2012217_2012252_2014154,00.html

New Orleans: A Farm Grows in the Lower Ninth

By Phil Bildner
Friday, Aug. 27, 2010

When the levee along the Industrial Canal failed back in 2005 and the wall of water drowned much of New Orleans' Lower Nine, the area north of Claiborne Avenue — the poorest section of the neighborhood — was hardest hit. Not surprisingly, the stretch has been slowest to recover. Five years after the devastating hurricane, the area still does not have a supermarket or store that sells fresh produce. Today, where houses once stood, jungle-like growths have consumed the lands. Other homes, still abandoned, are slanted and Burtonesque.

But just as strange is another thing in the neighborhood, right on Benton Street between North Roman and North Debigny. "We call it 'The Volcano'," says Brennan Dougherty. "We just started the compost pile back in April, and it's already almost 15 feet tall and 40 feet long." Then like a proud parent she adds, "It produces the most beautiful soil you've ever seen." Dougherty is the manager of a farm in the Lower Nine where organic vegetables are grown and goats raised where drug deals used to take place.

At five each morning, Dougherty hops into a pick-up truck and drives 8.9 miles to the Whole Foods on Magazine Street. The store donates its vegetable waste to the farm, which helps explain the Volcano's growth spurt and rich content. Dougherty's farm is connected to an independent community school, Our School at Blair Grocery, and serves as a hands-on, outdoor classroom where students and neighborhood teens learn they have the power to control their health and lives. The local youth care for the animals and help grow okra, collard greens, beets, dill and garlic.

"Growing good food is a lot like building a strong, diverse community," says Dougherty, who frequently conducts composting workshops. "Healthy food starts with rich soil. That's your foundation. Then you build up in layers. A strong community also needs a solid base. It requires diversity of materials, thought and action — the layers. Then you grow from within."

Even the drug dealers have respect for the learning playground. Not too long ago, transactions took place on the corner across the street. But not anymore. Not while area kids are feeding goats and picking sprouts. The pushers have relocated to another block, away from this anchor for community revitalization.

On a recent weekend afternoon, the farm played host to a neighborhood festival. In the past, relief workers and volunteers would have outnumbered residents because so few had returned to the nearby streets. But on this day, dozens of locals attended. Some worked the grill; others helped lead tours of the grounds. And on the makeshift stage built beside the red lettuce strip, young residents tap-danced in sneakers with crushed pop cans fastened to their soles, sang Mary J. Blige songs, and spat out original poems. "It's a beautiful thing what's happening here," said Jake Feinman, a teen volunteer from Westchester, New York, who attended the gathering and spent two weeks volunteering in New Orleans in July. "I'd love to see something like this where I live."

The Lower Nine urban farm concept is already spreading, though. At Temple University, sophomore Alex Epstein has helped formed the Philadelphia Urban Creators, a youth-led organization that seeks to educate and empower local neighborhoods through the concepts and practice of sustainability. Over the last year, Epstein has coordinated seven trips of students from Temple and North Philadelphia high schools to the Lower Ninth Ward. Now they are applying what they learned back home. This summer, on a plot of land on 11th and York in Philadelphia, a lot was cleared, and with the start of school, the students will embark on a community outreach campaign. The composting has already begun. Each day, the Esposito Dining Center, Temple University's largest student restaurant, gives its green waste to the farm. "Before I graduate," Epstein says confidently, "I'm going to climb to the top of our compost pile — which will be at least 20 feet tall — and I'll be able to see New Orleans."

Phil Bildner is Co-Executive Director of The NOLA Tree, a teen service organization.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Our Sprout Run!


Every Tuesday and Thursday Our School at Blair Grocery’s staff, students, and volunteers wake up at 5:30am to begin harvesting sprouts for our sprout runs. It is important to us that our sprouts are harvested just in time for delivery so that they are as fresh and nutritious as they can possibly be for the consumer. On the sprout runs 5 of the harvesters go together to the many restaurants which we have partnerships with all over New Orleans. At these restaurants we sell sprouts that have been grown by students, staff and volunteers such as basil, raddish, Sango, sunflower, etc. Throughout the seasons we change what we grow based on the weather so the menu changes from time-to-time. While this is necessary to keep up production it also acts as an educational tool, demonstrating that seasonal dishes are more sustainable and cost-effective...and still just as healthy and delicious. Moreover, our students get marketable skills for their future as they develop approaches to marketing and make sales directly to the chefs who use our produce. When we were harvesting this morning someone joked that we're taking that old "sowing the seeds of change" phrase to a new level.

Friday, August 6, 2010

We Need Your Support!

Dear friends and supporters,

Since Our School at Blair Grocery began in 2008 we have had an incredible amount of support from all of you in some way or another. Amongst you there are those that have volunteered your skills, knowledge, and energy, those that have contributed materials or money, and those that have given us invaluable encouragement and advice. Your support has allowed the project to further develop and we continue to make great strides in accomplishing our mission with young people and vision in New Orleans, creating a resource rich safe space for youth empowerment and sustainable community development.

In less than two years since Our School began serving New Orleans' youth, our staff has gone from one to eight. Additionally, we continue to establish partnerships with local colleges and universities, and others throughout the country, providing us with a tremendous resource. Students have earned college credits while working alongside us in developing Our School and building a sustainable regional food system. Every day we further our work with more and more neighborhood youth who spend their time with us immersed in the project. Many of the youth attend school with us on a regular basis and others spend time learning with us after school, on weekends, holidays and throughout the summer. These young people learn how to run workshops for visiting groups, give tours of the school, run the only weekly farmer’s market in the Lower 9th Ward, and most importantly are learning how to think and speak critically about the challenges facing their community and collaboratively build solutions. Without your support, we would not have made the progress with our youth that we have.

Throughout this time we have focused mostly on building our capacity and the effectiveness of our project within the community. It has recently become more urgent that we focus on renovating the primary facility that we operate out of--the Blair Grocery. We have always done our best to ensure that the parts of the building that our students and volunteers use is safe and clean. But, we have not yet been able to secure the funding to complete the building and get a final inspection by the city.

In order to achieve this goal so that we can continue to serve the youth of our neighborhood we need to raise at least $40,000 to purchase materials and hire local tradesmen to complete the work. If you are able to help us you can donate in one of two ways. Either visit our website ( and click on the donation button at the right of the page or send a check or money order to 1740 Benton St. New Orleans, LA 70117. Checks can be made out to Our School at Blair Grocery. We will provide a receipt of donation for your tax purposes upon request.


(718) 415-0890

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Our Food Choices

Workshop facilitated by Kyle Meador for Our School at Blair Grocery students and NY2NO Service-Learning group. August 5, 2010.

Essential Question:

How do our everyday food choices and actions further our food justice mission?


  • Participants will understand their role as individuals in furthering the local, sustainable food movement.

  • Participants will develop a shared language for engaging in productive discourse about food choices and actions.

  • Participants will consider some strategies for using food as a tool for organizing in their own communities.

Icebreaker –
What is your favorite meal, and what do you think others might learn about you from knowing that?

Microlab –
  • Why did you decide to participate in our movement for food justice (“Food Justice Summer”
  • What factors most influence the choices you make when buying food and where you choose to buy it? (i.e. budget, convenience, healthy choices, politics, etc.)
  • What role do you believe your everyday choices and actions (while in New Orleans and at home) play in achieving food justice (or not)?

Debrief of Microlab & Group Brainstorm –

  • What choices do we have when making decisions about what food to buy and where we buy it? (BE SPECIFIC). Identify 3-4 top “choices” that the group wants to explore more deeply, and define groups to discuss.

Dinner Break/Small Groups –

  • Small groups eat dinner together and discuss the positive and negative aspects associated with each “choice” and develop a plan for moving forward.

Now What? –

  • After dinner, each small group reports back to the larger group: What choices will we make? While in New Orleans? When you return home?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Building Chicken Coops in Hammond

The past couple of days New York 2 New Orlean's Group 6 has been staying in Hammond, a town an hour North of New Orleans. The goal is to revitalize what was once a thriving healing center pre-Katrina. This week the group constructed a chicken coop to begin preparation for the future organic farm/herbal healing center. Next project: Building the goat pen!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Coming Together and Making Connections

This week, NY2NO Groups 5, 6 and 7 came together with Our School at Blair Grocery staff and students to discuss the importance of the partnerships that we share with many farmers throughout Louisiana. As Group 7 got situated, Groups 5 and 6 came together to share their experiences and understandings of the places that they have lived or visited for the past. The groups discussed their experiences in Hammond and what communal living was like in Queen Afi's multi purpose center. We learned that Queen Afi's vision of her multi
purpose center will be a spiritual healing center, community center, herb shop and a farm. Beyond Queen Afi's multi purpose center, and also shared their experience of both racist and sexist farmers, and store clerks that live in Hammond.

Along with Queen Afi, partnerships in Houma and Tangipahoa were topics that the groups discussed and presented to Group 7. Houma, Dulac, where the groups saw the comparison of a thriving Bayou and a depleting one. In Tangipahoa, the groups learned about Naomi who is the only black dairy farmer in Louisiana and Wayne the cattle farmer who is one of few farmers that grow cattle organically.

After the presentations of each site, we discussed the importance of each site. We learned that having a wide variety of different local farmers could further food security and create a regional food system. The groups also discussed the similarities between the three sites, the surrounding neighborhoods and how creating food security would be beneficial.

Duke, an OSBG student shares his perspective on racism in New Orleans

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Building Community and Solidarity with Southern Louisiana

A couple of days ago, NY2NO group 6 took a trip down to Houma, the town of Dulac more specifically. We were met by Brooks, a professor at Adelphi University, who grew up in the area. Together, we took a trip around the area, saw the most prominent problems in the community, which were eerily similar to the ones right in our neighborhood and as the NY2NO students pointed out, just assimilar to the problems back in New York.

Together, we learned about environmental degradation of the wetlands and how that has a detrimental affect on the nearby communities, and the rest of Louisian
a. We saw what a healthy bayou looks like (thriving and diverse ecosystem of healthy trees, birds, fish, insects, etc.) Then we drove only a few miles over and saw the unhealthy swamps, where the trees and plant life has washed away and where the delicate ecosystem can no longer live. We took a stop at LUMCON, the Louisiana University Marine Consortium, as well.

Sign outside of Dulac, closing all fishing in the area
After our tour, we went into the town of Dulac and met with Jaime in the Dulac Community Center. She spoke on how the BP oil spill has severely impacted their community, where almost 100% of the jobs there are some how dependant on Oil and Fishing. We also learned about how even before the oil spill, that there were very similar problems go
ing on in their community. Hmm sounds a bit familiar to the Lower Ninth Ward... Together, the group sat down and fleshed out ideas of how we, and NY2NO, can begin to work together
in a mutually beneficial relationship. The NY2NO students brainstormed ideas about how we can generate local solutions to global problems, and what they could take away from that to start similar solution building in their communities in New York, even bringing down their service learners to stay in Dulac for a couple of days. Keep posted!