Harvesting for Change by Haneen Islam

The seeds for Our School at Blair Grocery (OSBG) were sown in Spring Break of 2006 when Nat Turner, a history teacher in New York, took 30 high school students to volunteer in post-Katrina New Orleans as part of an organization that would later be known as NY2NO. In 2008, Turner moved to the Lower 9th Ward when he realized that he wanted to do even more for the city and its people. And so he started up OSBG, an engaging project that harmoniously blends farming with education and also gives Tulane and other college students the opportunity to step outside the perfect academic bubble and come face to face with the harsh realities and struggles of less privileged lives.

“I started the project with four strawberry plants, three neighborhood kids and me,” Turner explains. “They would come to check on the strawberry plants every day after school. Then we found some tomatoes plants from the dumpsters.”

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Turner and a number of local children began growing the tomatoes and the community elderly would often stop by the lot and ask about or comment on the tomatoes. When they were ripe, Turner began to give them away for free to the neighborhood youth who would give them to their grandparents to cook.

“At some point,” Turner continues. “This old lady came by and said: ‘Are you the tomato man?’ And I said, “Yes, I guess I am the tomato man.” She asked for tomatoes so he had two neighborhood children hand them to her, and she gave them two dollars.

OSBG sprouted from Turner’s passion to both change the food system and increase the literacy rate. He explains how 30% of fresh foods and vegetables are wasted every year in the United States. Despite such high rates, children in areas such as the Lower 9th Ward are still unable to get nutritious meals, surviving instead on “pizza rolls, Ramen noodles and Kool Aids.” Turner brings up the “Fifth Grade Failure Syndrome”—a phrase that refers to the way black children, especially boys, when they hit the fifth grade, start failing and experience marginalization due to teachers’ inability to understand the socio-economic and cultural background they are from. As a result, students’ academics suffer and literacy rates drop.

osbg

Almost every year, Turner takes interns from universities all over New Orleans, including Tulane and Loyola, who support OSBG in giving neighborhood youth something productive to do and a safe environment in which to do it. With the help of a multitude of volunteers and interns, some of whom, like Michael Pinover, are from Tulane, local youth gain an informal education, learn self-empowerment, and become productive members of society. They run the farm by themselves by growing vegetables and selling their products at farmers’ markets, among other things. The school has no set curriculum but students learn basic things, such as math and English, which they can directly apply to farming tasks and responsibilities.

Turner, a truly inspiring man, intends to further develop and expand OSBG: “We are planning on tripling our growing area over the next few years and hopefully, one day, starting a large farm somewhere not too far from New Orleans to fight food insecurity.”

Good luck to you, Nat Turner! Tulane fully supports you!

Written by Haneen Islam, a freshman studying Political Science. Haneen is a student assistant for the Public Service Internships and International Programs at CPS. 

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