Our School at Blair Grocery (OSBG) is an multifaceted organization focused on helping at-risk youth as well as encouraging sustainability. It operates as an independent community school, an environmental education group, and an urban farm, all working out of the old Blair family grocery store in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans. OSBG seeks to dovetail youth empowerment with environmental consciousness to foster a community approach to global challenges for real change.
The Farm at Our School at Blair Grocery. Photo by Cameron Conklin.
OSBG operates an experiential curriculum that utilizes sustainability thinking and GED prep with the teenagers in their after-school program. They incorporate this into the work of ending hunger and building a profitable community food enterprise and a regional food economy to drive sustainable community development in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans.
As educators and social entrepreneurs, their curriculum is guided by the principles of backwards design. Backwards design is the concept that successful planning in everything from designing a class to implementing large scale social change must begin with the end point. Keeping the end goal in mind- a mindset called “enduring understanding”- ensures that the right steps can be taken to meet it.
To reach that enduring understanding, they designed a program called “Scaffolding, Strategy, Steps, and Benchmarks” as guided by their Essential Question: “to what extent are we empowering at risk youth to take leadership in making New Orleans, Louisiana the City that Ended Hunger?” (Our School at Blair Grocery, August 16th 2013, “http://schoolatblairgrocery.blogspot.com/“). This essential question assumes two important enduring understandings: That ending hunger in New Orleans is both achievable and practical, and that the cross-sector, cross-disciplinary work required to end hunger can create significant learning and employing opportunities for people (particularly young people) living in resource-deprived situations.
Our School at Blair Grocery knows that ending hunger has been done before. In “The City that Ended Hunger,” Frances Moore Lappé describes the practical innovations the city of Belo Horizonte successfully implemented to assure everyone the right to food. These innovations include fixing the price of fresh food items, linking low-resource farmers directly to low-income consumers, establishing “People’s Restaurants,” and introducing a participatory budgeting process.
The most interesting thing about Belo Horizonte’s innovations is that they transformed community relationships, creating a “new social mentality” stemming from the mutual benefits everyone enjoys when they are able to access good food. Farmers’ incomes increased, infant mortality rates dropped, the city combated it’s image as incompetent, and everyone’s bellies stayed full of healthy, local food. These innovations, ending hunger through mechanisms for individuals to participate in their democracy, take up less than 2% of the city’s annual budget.
Like Belo Horizonte, Our School at Blair Grocery understands that ending hunger can be done through practical means. Small innovations create significant opportunities for disempowered and resource-deprived people to participate in their democracy. Their mission is to create a resource rich safe space for youth empowerment and sustainable community development.
Unlike the majority of non-profits, Our School at Blair Grocery operates without the help of grants from large organizations. They receive their income through private donations and most commonly through sales of their produce to local restaurants. Their self-sufficient business model is unique in this sector. Developing a means to better ensure a steady flow of income is not only a goal but a reality. This model functions as an example for their students to learn and understand how to operate a business and be sustainable.
Social and Economical Impact
Our School at Blair grocery currently employs 5 New Orleans natives in their Urban Farming Ambassadors program and 5 neighborhood teenagers in their Growing Growers program. They operate an additional offsite farm at Our Sisters of the Holy Family in East New Orleans. They have also initiated the Gulf Coast Growing Power Regional Outreach Training Center. They engage and educate over 700 high school and college service-learners annually (Our School at Blair Grocery).
Mapping Non-Profit Influence: The Case of the Lower Ninth Ward
Our School at Blair Grocery is one of many organizations that have worked to restore the Lower Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina. As part of a larger study of the impact and networks of of non-profits in 2013 (please see Mapping Non-Profit Influence: The Case of the Lower Ninth Ward for more details), we can see that this organization excels in the following areas:
1. Access to Consumers regardless of ability to pay
OSBG works to provide fresh food access to consumers in the Lower Nine for Lower Nine residents. Their services are not provided by any private or governmental institution in this area, thus they are providing better access to this consumer base. They are also providing better access to those with less resources by targeting their programs for this demographic and helping to supply for this sector.
2. Provisions of Collective Goods
OSBG provides collective goods by educating local students in the Lower Nine, providing economic stimulus to the neighborhood as well as job opportunities.
3. Opportunities to Volunteer
Volunteer opportunities are available with OSBG, yet only though an alternative spring break program.
Participation in Information Sharing
When we analyze Our School at Blair Grocery based on its extent of participation in information sharing activities, we see they are active in 5 ways:
The main aim of OSBG is to serve as a school providing alternative education to residents of the Lower Ninth Ward.
Along with education, training is a huge component of their programs. Teaching students practical skills in urban farming along with their studies.
OSBG engages deeply in research to understanding the progress other cities have made in the fight against hunger. They also research and implement new and innovative educational programs such as their current program ‘Backwards Design’.
4. Capacity Building
OSBG offers paying jobs to students in their program, teaching them the importance of responsibility, helping them form skills and enhancing their purchasing power to further stimulate the economy of the neighborhood.
5. Social Change
Our School at Blair Grocery is striving towards social change by attempting to recreate the Lower Ninth Ward’s relationship with food. They are looking to end hunger in their neighborhood by empowering local youth and connecting low resource consumers with fresh produce from urban farms. They are working towards making New Orleans the city that ended hunger.