This article was published in a local New Orleans magazine publication while I attended Tulane University
If you came to the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans just after Hurricane Katrina, you would have been enveloped in a sense of empty, a ghost town. True New Orleanians know that the soul of the city could never be washed away, but this was a new pain. This is how it felt to the untrained eye. Homes were demolished. Residents had fled in pursuit of refuge from the storm. A saxophone blaring would always be in earshot, but it would be tinged with the crunch of shattered glass beneath your feet or a hollow gust of wind.
Fast forward to today, and many efforts to rebuild are coming to fruition. One of the most prominent of these achievements is Our School at Blair Grocery (OSBG), a sustainable farm and education center to empower local youth, growing an impressive $2,500 worth of vegetables every week.
Nat Turner, a former high school Social Studies teacher from the Upper West Side of New York City founded OSBG in 2006. Turner’s small farm, spanning less than an acre, is a sea of vivid greens, cherry tomato reds, and sunny yellows, set against a backdrop of dusty overgrown lots and dilapidated homes. This farm is on somewhat sacred land, bringing new life to a lot that once housed a family-owned grocery also destroyed in Katrina. Over the past ten years, Turner has worked tirelessly alongside Lower 9th Ward natives to transform the neighborhood establishment into a space where both vegetables, and local youth, can grow.
Turner left his teaching position at the Beacon School in Manhattan and launched his project in New Orleans shortly after the hurricane. In a thriving city such as New York, Turner felt as though there was always some level of privilege for his students, and he had the desire to provide opportunities for kids who had far less. Being that the effects of Hurricane Katrina still crawled through the walls of sunken homes and swam in the flooded streets, this need was especially evident.
“I never want to cut grass another day in my life,” he told me. I was perplexed. It turns out that when he first arrived in New Orleans, Turner joined reconstruction brigades, cutting grass and rebuilding homes. After some time, he itched to do work that created more direct opportunities for kids in the Lower 9th Ward.
With the tenth anniversary of OSBG coming this Fall, the work that youth volunteers have achieved is impressive. Since inception, Turner has taught his students basic gardening skills such as spacing, watering, and making compost. He is consistently motivated by the excitement of the young adults as they delve fresh cut knowledge. Turner takes his curriculum a step further by demonstrating ways to incorporate the fresh foods apprentices grow into their diets. He asks questions such as, “How can we make a healthier pig?” when discussing the additives and hormones found in traditional packaged foods. The thousands of dollars that OSBG collects each week are made by selling the produce at an onsite Sunday farmers’ market and at two dozen high-end restaurants across the New Orleans area.
Take the Roasted Beet Salad at Emeril’s Delmonico; a carefully arranged plate of warm roasted beets tossed with Louisiana citrus, spiced walnuts, and crème fraîche atop a bed of fresh arugula. The leafy greens that make up the majority of the dish come straight from OSBG.
Access and empowerment blossom just like OSBG’s vegetables; the farm’s apprentices are paid up to eight hours of work a week and are taught fundamental job skills over the course of their time at OSBG. “The whole social fabric [of the Lower 9th Ward] is tattered,” says Sam Turner (no relation to Nat), one of Turner’s former students from New York City who is now heavily involved with the farm. “OSBG shows people that something is possible… you don’t have to go through ten years of school… just to come up with a project that really does something,” he said when discussing all that the farm has accomplished over the past decade.
OSBG has not only had an impact on its’ local neighborhood of downtown New Orleans but has attracted volunteers of all ages and from around the world. Turner has met with visitors from University of Kentucky who he says, “knew more about farming than I did,” while “other folks never wanna go home!… [a] Long Island University student from Ghana stayed because it reminds him of where he grew up.”
There is still much work to be done to cement OSBG’s goals in other areas of New Orleans. Sam pointed out that a major obstacle in growing the team is attracting Tulane University students and having them acknowledge the disparities in the quality of life outside the bubble of a private university. “It’s like traveling between Mars and Earth,” he said of comparing the two environments.
On their website, the OSBG team describes itself as “a growing power regional training center. We are creating a resource rich safe space for youth empowerment and sustainable community development. We envision a community of action where empowered youth engage in reflective practice with others to actualize effective, replicable, and scalable environmental justice based local solutions to global challenges.” These are valiant albeit lofty goals, and not met without challenge. “I didn’t realize our needs were going to be so great… it’s a constant battle to keep up,” said Turner. During an especially cold winter last year, the farm lost $30,000 in crops. His most recent project is raising the funds for a $65,000 renovation to build housing space, classrooms and a commercial kitchen for “everyone from the neighborhood elders to the neighborhood kids.”
Ten years ago, there was an abandoned lot devastated by a natural disaster on the lonely corner of Benton and Roman Streets. Because of tenacity, resilience and vision that space now grows food that can be found at some of the finest restaurants throughout New Orleans. Turner even said that the scope of this mission is “so big it’s like trying to reverse the Mississippi,” which happens to be the namesake of a documentary highlighting OSBG’s story. But the rewards of Turner and his team’s efforts as he reaches a decade at OSBG are just as great. He has created a center that values and nurtures New Orleans youth not only by making education more accessible, but also by bringing attention to the vital role that food and land play in improving our lives.