Post by Faryn Hart, Group Leader for #AltBreak 2013 in New Orleans
March seems to be a busy time in New Orleans. The days are long and perfectly warm, the streets are full with beads and lawn chairs for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and Super Sunday, and colleges throughout the country bring throngs of students on Service Learning Alternative Spring Breaks to rebuild the city that has suffered much blight in the wake of Katrina. Almost 8 years after the hurricane caused the levees to break and flood 80% of New Orleans white 15 passenger vans still hum in the streets steering volunteers eager to change the life of someone and in that process change their own lives.
The Alternative Break Service Learning Trip is a model for students to use the little free time that they have to do something radical to alter their college experience. This integrative experiential education offers a space for participants to challenge their preconceptions of areas and communities disparate from their own and in turn attempts to provide a substantial impact in community service for a particular area.
During my own spring break immediately following Katrina, I gutted houses and spent time in the Ninth Ward speaking with victims of the flooding that chose not to or couldn’t leave when the storm hit. This experience, coordinated by Hillel through the non-profit Operation Blessing, gave me an immense understanding of the reality of economic disparity in New Orleans and gave me a deep sense of fellowship in this service to strangers.
This past spring break once again the Jewish Farm School offered an alternative service learning model that brought students in direct contact with grassroots projects that are working to rebuild the soil, to bring life back into otherwise vacant and contaminated lots to feed the local community with sustainably farmed ‘groceries’ tended by neighbors. Urban Farming in New Orleans currently has turned 120 out of these 40,000 vacant lots into growing sites and local growers have the New Orleans Food and Farming Network to support, help fundraise and even train budding farmers. This volunteer organization has created a “network of local and regional activists, community stakeholders and non-profits to address issues of food security and equitable access to healthy, sustainable and culturally appropriate food.”
I was fortunate to co-lead groups of students from University of Pennsylvania, Loyola Marymont University, University of North Carolina and Washington University in St. Louis and in this week of first hand farming we weeded; pulled glass, rusted nails, broken tiles out of backyard dirt; planted new seeds in composted and mulched soil, rebuilt a greenhouse, kosher slaughtered three chickens, harvested bountiful amounts of kale, daikons, cabbage, oranges and cumquats; double dug new raised beds, hauled soil and free mulch; and all the while intentionally created space in community around food and our personal relationship with it in this very complex food system all through the lens of a Jewish kavanah (intention) for Tikkun Olam (mending the world).
This season in Louisiana is warm and blossoming – tomatoes are already showing true leaves, summer crops are readying in the greenhouse and the spring karpas (leafy greens) is not simply popping out of a melting snow ground but is vivaciously competing with cultivated plants for nutrients from the soil. As the second week of Alternative Spring Break trips began the night sky boasted the fact that the new lunar cycle had begun to bring in the month of Nissan and with it the season of Passover. It feels pretty resonant for me that the work that these groups were doing on this Spring Break Trip was ushering in Zman Cheiruteinu, the time of our Freedom.
The core curriculum that we focused on during the trip was based around issues of food justice and food security. These notions seek to ensure that there is fair and equal access to healthy and affordable food and though this would seem to be a fundamental right in the highly complex food system that we find ourselves today this is a messy and ‘oily’ business.
We visited areas of the city that are coined food deserts: areas whose residents do not have easy access to nutritious food because there are no grocery stores within walking distance, because their jobs prevent them from being able to shop at regular hours, because this food is too expensive or because the convenience stores down the street sell processed foods in boxes.
The New Orleans Food and Farming Network connected our group with urban farming projects that are taking this issue of disempowerment and reclaiming food sovereignty. We worked with Grow Dat Youth Farm that grows food for local residents while training high school teens in sustainable farming practices and social and environmental leadership. We worked with Ica at Our NOLA Garden that has three growing sites in New Orleans and grows food for the surrounding community. We worked with Ariel at P-Town Farms, a full-time Montessori school teacher that is transforming her concrete yard into a veggie, fruit and herb haven and we worked with Ramona at Lutz Farms who sells her produce to fine local restaurants so that she is able to sell her produce cheaper at market.
It wasn’t just the sunshine and the intense physical work out that was good for us, it was the honest passionate inspired stories of these farmers that truly affected and infected us. These urban growers have taken a system of food access that is mostly distant and anonymous and made it local and personal. They have reduced the amounts of petrol used to bring food from farm to fork and the amount of hands that food dollars meet before they reach the grower. They have created a space where community members can have hands on experience in growing food for themselves and each other and have created a bio-diverse environment in one that was otherwise desolate.
Students, some for the first time, were engaging in the issues of the multi layered food system with both their minds and their hands. By helping to further develop the projects of others that have taken a step to better food access in New Orleans we were engaging in a freedom from being slaves to agri-conglomerates that dictate where our food comes from and how much it will cost (financially and environmentally).
This is the liberation essence of my Passover. A time when I am completely turning my kitchen around and bringing a little more consciousness to the types of foods that I am eating. This empowerment is something I bring back with me to my East Bay home, an area with food desert issues of its own. One week is a seed – a seed to germinate in the right time with the right conditions. Whether this sprouting will result in these students buying a canteen to drink water out of, reading a label on an apple at the grocery store, seeking out their local farmers’ market, volunteering at their school’s student community garden, starting a composting system, growing a tomato plant in their dorm window, telling three friends about GMOs, or developing the world’s largest hydroponic food system, each participant has made a personal commitment with which to return home and these commitments are germinating out of the knowledge that there IS a food system of which we are a part and we can therefore choose where we wish to stand in this web. This knowing is a freedom in itself, the spring bud which welcomes new growth and as we bring in the season of our offering, chag haPesach, let our offering to our community be one where we continue to seek a sustainable system for ourselves and for the planet.