Schoolyard Roots Director on Garden Party

Sep 22, 2017

Student volunteers construct a new Schoolyard Roots teaching garden at Faucett Vestavia Elementary School in Northport, Ala.
Credit via Twitter

One of the state’s premiere events for the food-obsessed is taking place this weekend in Tuscaloosa.

Schoolyard Roots, formerly known as the Druid City Garden Project, is hosting its annual Garden Party this Sunday at the Tuscaloosa River Market. Schoolyard Roots is a nonprofit organization that builds and maintains teaching gardens in area elementary schools, providing kids both with healthy produce and hands-on learning opportunities.

Eric Courchesne is the Interim Executive Director of Schoolyard Roots.

Alex AuBuchon: Eric, how did you first get involved in the organization?

Eric Courchesne: So, I’m actually the former development director of the organization from a few years back. I joined when I moved here from Austin, Texas. I did some research on what nonprofit organizations existed in Tuscaloosa, and this one hit my radar in a big way. I personally think education is the most important thing we do as a civilization, and so the fact that there was a nonprofit organization in Tuscaloosa that was entirely dedicated to improving the quality of education in local schools was something that struck a chord with me.

AA: And tell us what exactly Schoolyard Roots is – what you’re doing, what your goals are.

EC: Yeah, absolutely. So the organization is expanding in both the city and county school systems here in Tuscaloosa. Our goal is to build a teaching garden in every single one of the schools here, and train teachers on an interesting curriculum that takes the standards that they teach in their classroom, and give them an opportunity to teach it outside in a hands-on environment.

And the reason that’s important is that it has all kinds of benefits for students. We’re seeing, in part because of a partnership with a researcher at the university, that we’re having an impact on student test scores across multiple subjects, and perhaps even more importantly, their engagement in school. They’re more excited about school, they’re more engaged with the coursework, and they’re trying and loving vegetables – which, I think, is a big piece for our organization.

We’re a food organization at our heart, and the fact that we can help students grow their own food and become connected with their food supply, so that they understand where that food comes from and why it’s important for them -- it’s a big win.

AA: And speaking of your organization’s food connection, let’s talk about the Garden Party. Just tell us a bit about the event – what it is.

EC: It's a wonderful event. It’s Tuscaloosa’s premiere foodie event. We’re going to have 14 of Tuscaloosa’s finest restaurants. They’re paired with six local farmers. And they are passionate about what we’re doing, and so that passion is poured into the dishes they create. So, folks that come to the event get to try these wonderful dishes from all of these restaurants.

AA: And these are new inventions, right? These aren’t dishes you can usually find at these area restaurants?

EC: Yeah, that’s right, so they use their creativity – a lot of the local restaurants we have here, the chefs there are fantastic, they’re really creative individuals, so this is an opportunity for them to experiment with new dishes, riff off of existing dishes that they’ve got and put a bit of a twist on it. Even the local craft breweries will use ingredients from local farmers and try something new.

So there’s great live local music. We have a really interesting auction this year, with some cool items, including a fully kitted-out raised bed garden for anybody’s backyard. And the event is really to benefit the organization’s mission. The ticket sales are what keep the lights on, it’s what helps pay for our instructors to go into schools and teach. The school systems pay for only a third of the cost of the program; we, as an organization, raise two thirds of the cost of the program.

So if people are interested in delicious food, and drinking local craft beer, and listening to local music, and they would like to support their local public education system, it’s kind of a no-brainer.

AA: So for people that want to attend, when and where is the Garden Party taking place, and how do you get tickets?

EC: So, the event is this Sunday at 5 o’clock at the River Market in downtown Tuscaloosa. And folks can get tickets online at SchoolyardRoots.org.

AA: And how are ticket sales looking so far?

EC: They’re looking good, and we expect that we will probably sell out prior to the event. So if you are interested in coming to the event, we highly recommend getting those tickets online as soon as possible.

AA: Eric, thank you so much for your time – is there anything else you want to add?

EC: You know, I think the most important thing in all of this is that we live in strange times. The world is an interesting place, there’s a lot going on, and we feel passionately about the fact that we need more love in the world. Love is predicated on understanding. Understanding is predicated on knowledge. And so, to the extent that we can be a force to increase the amount of knowledge in the world – that we can go right down to kindergarten through grade 5 and increase the amount of knowledge and understanding in the world, we know that that is going to increase the amount of love in the world. And if there is one thing that is the most important that we do – it’s that.

Eric Courchesne is the Interim Director of Schoolyard Roots, formerly known as the Druid City Garden Project. Their annual Garden Party is taking place this Sunday at 5 p.m. at the Tuscaloosa River Market. Tickets are available online at SchoolyardRoots.org.