Langston Hughes students Trinity Young and Kayla Watson get an up-close look at locally sourced food through the Edible Schoolyard program. Credit: FirstLine/Maile Lani Photography

Ask a school-aged child where that strawberry she is eating comes from and most likely she will say, “From the store!” And while this is technically true, it’s not the answer we are looking for.

Food education — basic knowledge about where food comes from — is practically a lost art in our high-tech, super-processed society. At least two generations of Americans suffer from low knowledge of fresh food. McDonald’s and similar food vendors that opened a half-century or more ago changed the way we eat and, indeed, even the way we think about food.

Before that time many of us had at least some exposure to home gardens. World War II-era Victory Gardens were deeply rooted in the culture, even in urban environments. Some of us Baby Boomers remember a grandparent teaching us to plant seeds, tend and water the new shoots and enjoy the harvest, whether it was a tomato or a mirliton picked from the vine. Even though most of the food we consumed came “from the store,” we weren’t total strangers to food that came from the earth. We made that connection and it was a powerful thing.

Today most city children have not had this experience. Couple that with the lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables in post-Katrina New Orleans (most New Orleanians still live in neighborhoods without a full-service grocery store within a mile of home), and our lack of food education qualifies as a social justice issue.

People have a right to know where food comes from, how to access it, and how to prepare it in healthy ways. Think about it. The need for food is as basic as the need for air and water. It’s a shared human experience that has the power to build community – or divide us – depending on how we meet that need. Knowledge of food and food systems, what’s good for you and how to get it, is essential to the development of healthy, well-rounded, well-nourished people. We owe it to our children to give them the tools to make healthy choices for themselves.

That’s what the Edible Schoolyard New Orleans is all about. At the five open-admissions public schools managed by the FirstLine charter management organization, we’re working to change the way children eat, learn and live. FirstLine believes that food education is a vital component of preparing our students for success in school and in life. We’re teaching students from kindergarten through high school — the majority of them children of color from low-income families — how to grow food, how to prepare it in healthy ways, and how to enjoy it in community. The program’s aim is to empower generations of New Orleans children to develop and maintain healthy relationships with food, the natural world, themselves and their community.

Students get daytime garden classes at all five of our schools and participate — parents are encouraged to join them — in a variety of food-education events. We also offer cooking classes at the two schools with teaching kitchens. We host Open Garden Days where parents, children and volunteers dig in and help prepare our gardens for seasonal growing.

Family Food Nights are a chance for students and parents to cook a meal from ingredients grown in our gardens and go home with recipes and bags of produce. Our third graders go to farmers markets and work with volunteer chefs to purchase locally grown food and prepare a lunch for their families.

Fifth and seventh graders participate in Iron Chef competitions to see who can make the best dish with a secret seasonal ingredient. We take children to local farms and bring farmers to our schools. Everyone enjoys tasting what’s growing in the garden.

The model for the edible education we offer came from the work of chef/activist Alice Waters, the legendary restaurateur who developed a garden and culinary program at a middle school in Berkeley, Calif., 18 years ago. Waters visited New Orleans in the spring of 2006 as we began recovering from Katrina and the federal flood. She was so moved that she suggested we be the first to replicate her model at Samuel J. Green Charter School in the Freret neighborhood.

The revitalized school and its garden became an anchor for the neighborhood, which now features many local businesses along the thriving Freret corridor between Napoleon and Jefferson avenues. Several chefs from the many restaurants surrounding the school participate in our Edible Schoolyard New Orleans events.

In addition to building gardening and cooking skills, the idea is to encourage students to take ownership of the food they grow and what they eat. “That’s my Brussels sprout,” one third grader says, before popping it into his mouth. As Waters says, if they grow it and they cook it, they will eat it – even if it is a Brussels sprout. Our children express surprise when they eat something unfamiliar and find out they actually like it. Their families are just as surprised when the child asks for kale at home, and can be counted on to follow a recipe and make dinner.

Besides the exposure and community building that takes place around food, good food education makes better learners. We teach families how to make a five-minute yogurt parfait with fresh fruit and nuts. It delivers a whopping 10 grams of protein, and the child comes to school well-nourished and ready to absorb a morning of instruction.

Imagine the outrage if government began demanding that schools allocate resources to school gardens and then really stood up to corporate food giants by insisting on higher consumption of locally grown produce!

We continue on this mission by working closely with Chartwells, our school food service, not only to exceed the minimums set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for fresh fruit and vegetables and whole grains in school meals, but also to help reinforce Edible Schoolyard New Orleans’ work by serving the same kinds of produce currently growing in our gardens.

We start the school year with watermelon, through a partnership with Ben Burkett, a Mississippi farmer who plants it in early July just for us. That way it’s ripe when school opens. In the fall students learn to expect sweet potatoes; in the winter we grow green leafy vegetables, and in late spring there is lots of basil. When children see these same foods on their plates at school they begin to make the connection that good food is local and seasonal – and that they have the power to grow it.

How do we do this? We do it by making the commitment to hire garden teachers and chef educators, by allocating resources to develop and maintain school gardens, and by making time in the daily schedule for garden and culinary classes, especially at the four K-8 schools, where our program is well established. It’s a big commitment, but it reflects the values of FirstLine leaders and their belief that food education is an essential part of a well-rounded education.

Besides giving our students skills and knowledge, we also want to change their health outcomes. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one-third of children born in this country after the year 2000 will develop Type 2 diabetes in their lifetimes. For the African-American children we serve, nearly one-half will develop this highly preventable food-related illness. Good food education will help reduce the incidence of diabetes, heart disease, and a variety of obesity-related quality-of-life issues.

Our most recent evaluation, conducted by Tulane University’s Prevention Research Center, showed that of the students who had Edible Schoolyard New Orleans classes, 48 percent reported eating green vegetables the day before, compared to 10 percent nationally. Similarly, 85 percent of Edible Schoolyard New Orleans students reported eating fruit, compared to 61 percent nationally. If we embrace it widely, edible education could have a profound effect on the amount of money we spend on food-related illness and on lifespan and quality of life.

So why doesn’t America make food education a mandate for all schools? For the same reason we are having such a heated debate over the academic instruction we make available: politics and money. Imagine the outrage if government began demanding that schools allocate resources to school gardens and then really stood up to corporate food giants by insisting on higher consumption of locally grown produce!

But there is a way forward, I believe, and it’s happening at the grassroots level. A local food movement is taking root and gaining momentum, not just among farmers and foodies, but also within the families who visit the widening local network of farmers markets, many of which now accept SNAP benefits.

The trend towards healthier eating has permeated federal guidelines, which set the standard for food and nutrition policy, directly impacting the meals served to more than 32 million American children in schools and childcare settings. A 2014 school food plate waste study by the Harvard School of Public Health, indicated that individual student consumption of vegetables had jumped 16 percent since 2012 when new federal standards mandating more fresh food in school meals were implemented, a trend that could have profound long-term health benefits. The movement is growing organically – schools just need to support it by making edible education a priority along with rigorous academics.

Besides the science and nutrition education in this work, there is the joy factor. As I write this, reports are flowing in about the two Edible Schoolyard New Orleans events that happened on the same day, a Family Food Night at Green and an Iron Chef Competition at Arthur Ashe Charter School. Loren Farese, one of our garden educators, wrote: “I heard the phrase ‘the best day of my life’ from both a student AND a teacher!!!”

Today, when you ask a Green student where the strawberry she is eating came from, you will probably hear that it came from the garden. And then she’ll take you over to the strawberry patch and show you the ones that are ripe and ready to pick and those that will be ready next week. She will say this with confidence, and with a sense of ownership and pride in the garden and the food she helps grow in it.

This is the kind of basic knowledge and experience that all children should have. It is their right to know how to feed themselves and their families fresh, wholesome, good food. At least they should be presented with the full picture so they may make informed choices. Because isn’t that the purpose of education – to give people options? Otherwise they don’t know what they are missing.

Claudia Barker is the executive director of Edible Schoolyard New Orleans, a signature program of FirstLine Schools.