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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Our School at Blair Grocery

When I visit a city other than New York, I am always interested in visiting community gardening or urban agriculture projects. It is a great way to see what folks from different regions and different cultures are doing and to share some of my experience and learn from their experience. So when I had the pleasure of visiting New Orleans a couple of weeks ago with my family to sample the local food and music, I also wanted to visit a project that I have read and heard about called Our School at Blair Grocery.

So my daughter and I set off one morning to rent bicycles from a place a couple of blocks from our hotel in the French Quarter. The proprietor's initial reaction to our desire to go to the Lower Ninth Ward was that they usually don't get requests to ride to the Lower Ninth. In fact the bike map he had taped to the wall did not extend to that neighborhood. For those not familiar with the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, that low lying area was almost totally flooded when the levees were breached by the swollen Mississippi River. In fact we learned that the building used by Our School at Blair Grocery (OSABG), the former Blair family grocery store and home was flooded by 12 feet of water up to the windows on the second floor.

After giving us heavy duty bikes with puncture proof tires and a map printed out from his American Bicycle Rental Company computer, we set off on our way. It was just 5 miles and 3 turns, with some of the ride on a marked bike lane. The only problematic spot was a bridge which crossed the canal and narrowed to a point where only a car or truck could pass in each lane and we had to walk on a narrow path on the side. The bridge was the entrance to the Lower Ninth Ward and it gave us a vantage point to see that the land seemed to be below sea level. There was a lot of vacant land and a lot of abandoned, boarded up buildings. But we were not there to wander around gawking at devastation but we were riding with a destination in mind to see an example of the rebuilding or repurposing of some of the vacant land and buildings.

The Blair grocery building which years before Katrina housed the Blair family and a place for neighbors to gather and pick up bulk items and share local news, exactly the kind of neighborhood benefits that a community garden might provide. The family offered the folks who are leading the OSABG effort the use of the building and land as long as it is used to help educate local youth.

When we arrived at the site we found a group of teens busy working on covering the hoop greenhouse with burlap bags that were stitched together to provide shading as the sun and heat began to increase. We were given a tour and explanation of the mission, activities and sustainable practices by Jamie Katz who was one of a small core group. The core group had all spent time at Growing Power in Milwaukee where they learned some of the techniques they were using and the philosophy of using available resources, i.e.. land, food waste and human capital to provide healthy food, jobs and hope to people and communities. In fact OSABG bills themselves as a Growing Power  regional training center.

Perhaps the most enlightening thing I learned was that the group is constantly in the process of training people to learn their jobs of food production and distribution and teaching others to teach young people these skills. It was a busy place of folks working on the compost area, packing up sprouts to deliver to restaurants, unloading a pickup truck laden with food scraps from local supermarkets and sending out the truck to deliver the goods and pick up more compostable materials.

They had several pieces of  the sustainable puzzle that were specific to the New Orleans area. Sustainability comes in many forms and the use of area specific resources is key. They grew mushrooms in hanging "mushroom chandeliers" using dried Johnson grass (a particularly aggressive invasive weed that is hard to eradicate) as the growing medium.
Mirliton trellis

In one area, they grew mirlitons also known as vegetable pears or chayote. Mirlitons are perennial in New Orleans and are able to produce large quantities of fruit per vine. The OSABG folks still need to develop canning capabilities or partner with a group that does as the vines all ripen at the same time and the mirliton is traditionally canned or preserved.

Using intensive gardening techniques they were able to grow onions, tomatoes, pole beans and arugula all in the same bed with the bean plants trained on a hoop structure and shading the arugula from the intense sun and heat.

I was especially interested in an Aquaponics system that they were using as a way to grow fish and vegetables in a small space using the fish waste to fertilize the vegetables and circulating the water from the  aquaculture tanks to the hydroponic growing beds. The system was a good design for Milwaukee but at this time was not fully functional and Jamie explained that there were plans for a different system better suited to their climate.

All of the physical sustainable practices highlighted many techniques that could be emulated elsewhere but for me the social practices were more important. The fact that OSABG was a learning center was key. The word school is prominent in the name but also in their philosophy. The education system in New Orleans seems to be geared to preparing workers for low paying jobs in the hotels and restaurants while the OSABG training was preparing entrepreneurs to create a local economy. They also hired local youth to help on site providing job skills and much needed income for their families. The fact that there was not just one charismatic leader means that the work is shared and the vision is created by the group, a much more sustainable social model.

OSABG hosts many interns, volunteers and trainings and is well worth a visit by bicycle or even better some time or funds spent to help make this effort a continuing success story.