An ear of corn may seem like an unlikely academic tool to some, but the students of Belle Chasse Academy view the vegetable as an opportunity to learn about botany, nutrition and even Native American culture. That’s because they follow a unique teaching method that combines food with a traditional curriculum of math, science and social studies. The school’s culinary garden and teaching kitchen, which are partially funded by the Emeril Lagasse Foundation, provide the flavorful learning material.
By late April, the nature-based classroom dubbed the Victory Garden will be blooming with collard greens, cucumbers, carrots and peppers, along with tomato vines wrapped around a wooden trellis. The crops are surrounded by a butterfly garden, also called a pollinator garden, lined with marigold, magenta and bright white blooms.
Students plant and harvest crops year round, while also learning how the foods have been featured in global cuisines throughout history. Students also use math skills when mixing and measuring ingredients in the kitchen classroom. And they ultimately develop a better understanding of where their food comes from, and how proper nutrition serves as the foundation for a healthy lifestyle.
Chef Ryan Galle, Belle Chasse Academy’s culinary education coordinator, recently guided his students through a lesson on how food provides them with energy.
“A light bulb goes off,” said Galle, a native New Orleanian. “A lot of times they think culinary arts is just pulling out a pan or a pot and putting some food in it, and that’s it.”
During a separate lesson, students were divided into teams and challenged to concoct a meal comprising the five food groups – fruits, vegetables, proteins, grains and dairy products – with pilaf serving as the grain option.
The young chefs combed the culinary garden for fresh ingredients: bell peppers, baby spinach, kale, garlic, and green onions, among other goods. They then voted on which team’s dish would pair best with the pilaf. Sweet chili sautéed shrimp and asparagusand was the winning menur. They also discussed nutrition.
In another session tending the garden, Galle taught his students that they can eat sweet peas by removing the pod, or by stir-frying the whole thing.
“We show them how you can eat crops at different stages of their growth,” said Galle, who studied culinary arts at Delgado Community College before working as a private chef and cooking in restaurants around the city.
In the nearby herb garden, Galle talked about how herbs can “take a dish to the next level.” The lush herb garden is brimming with lemongrass, ginger, sage, oregano, and bushes full of bay leaves, which the students learn how to dry out.
The sprawling culinary garden also contains several hydroponics systems stored within a greenhouse-like structure, where the chef illustrates how bib lettuce is grown with a nutrient-rich water solution, rather than soil.
And once they reach the cooking portion of the lesson, Galle and his students walk over to the school’s outdoor teaching kitchen and work with crops recently plucked from garden. Since all of the equipment is portable, it can be stowed away after class.
“The kids really enjoy it,” said Galle. “This is one of the best concepts of hands-on learning, because it gets them out of the classroom. They get fresh air. The experience brings a lot of children out of their shells.”
Emeril’s Culinary Garden & Teaching Kitchen programs are implemented in elementary and middle schools around the country – particularly schools comprised of middle- to low-income students. Belle Chasse Academy, which is located on Naval Air Station, Joint Reserve Base New Orleans in Plaquemines Parish, serves children from military families.
The kindergarten through eighth-grade school incorporates lessons in the garden for all students, but the level of complexity varies with age.
By including gardening and cooking concepts into school curriculums, Emeril’s program equips children with both culinary and life skills.
“I just love the idea of helping out,” said Madeline Bates, a sixth-grader. “Knowing that I grew some of the vegetables that other students will eat is fun.”
Walter Johnson, a seventh-grader, said the experience has softened his stance on vegetables: He likes them more than he did before.
“I like doing this – just watering the plants and watching them grow,” said Walter, noting that he even started a garden at home.
Harvesting the ingredients for their meals also makes the kids more appreciative of where their food comes from, said Galle.
“They put the seed into the ground, care for it, and watch it grow,” he said. “It’s not easy to understand that not everyone can just go to the grocery store. Someone behind the scenes actually put in all of this work to make sure you have healthy nutrients – a source of food that they really like.”