Wednesday, July 9, 2014

FoodCorps Attends the MT School Nutrition Association's Annual Conference!

In mid-June, FoodCorps service members from across Montana had the privilege of attending the annual Montana School Nutrition Association Conference in Great Falls. The theme of the conference was “Good Nutrition Makes Cents,” and indeed, not only were there workshops about cooking with lentils and new strategies for using whole grains, but there were also multiple sessions on procuring local food. Nicki Jimenez, Camille McGoven and Zoe Tucker were fortunate to have a chance to present a workshop on “Classroom and Cafeteria Connections” to a room full of dedicated food service staff who wanted to know how to get kids to eat healthier foods. 

Sometimes some adults think (mistakenly) that kids just naturally don’t like fruits and vegetables. This has even been brought up as a reason to scale back the requirements for fruits and vegetables in schools--of course it’s a waste for school food services to see food they’ve bought and prepared get scraped off trays into garbage cans (or into compost buckets). But as service member Leah Kroger recently wrote, it’s a fallacy that kids are somehow instinctively sugar- and junk food-craving maniacs. To the contrary, an astronomical amount of marketing dollars is spent on getting kids to like junk food, while very little is spent on marketing vegetables (except for some fabulous and creative recent efforts like this one).

With this problem in mind, Nicki, Camille and I wanted to share our “marketing” strategies for fruits and vegetables with school food service staff. Sure, these strategies are a lot lower budget and smaller scale, but at the grassroots level, they absolutely work. Here are a few tactics we discussed that you, too, can use in your school meal programs:

Outside of the School Day: creatively use more flexible food programs and school events for showcasing local food.
  • Summer Feeding Programs -- If you live in a cold place like we do, summer feeding programs are a great outlet for local and even school garden produce during the height of the season! This is also a great opportunity for involving kids in fun activities such as growing and harvesting produce for the summer feeding programs, farmer or rancher visits, and farm field trips.
  • Concessions -- Since concession stands often have higher budgets, they can be a great opportunity for things like local beef (Red Lodge Schools have experimented with this!).
  • Family open houses- A great way to showcase the school lunch program by providing a meal or taste test for families.
  • Field trips and farmer visits- Want one of the most effective ways for connecting kids to where their food comes from? Meeting the actual human who grew, tended, and harvested their veggies.

In the classroom: kids who learn about new foods will more likely try and love them!
  • Snack Facts -- With the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, other snack programs, or even menu items, food service staff or volunteers can make and distribute snack fact sheets that say 1. What a food is 2. Why it’s good for you and, if it’s local, 3. Where it comes from and why eating local can be a good choice. Here you can find a trove of her amazing snack fact sheets that you can adapt for your own school or use as inspiration!
  • “Snacktivities”-- Movement-based activities that Nicki and other service members use to get kids thrilled about eating healthy, Montana-grown foods like lentils, butternut squash, and beets. (Nicki even led workshop participants in a snacktivity that acted out growing and preparing butternut squash. “And CHOP! And CHOP! And CHOP! And CHOP! . . .”). As a food service worker, you can send these activities to classroom teachers along with the snack of the day.

In the cafeteria: start small and celebrate each victory by throwing yourself a big party!
  • [Insert your State] Meal Day -- In your state--Montana, for example--try serving all Montana-made food for just one meal a year. Invite parents, make signs, make a day of it! This brings great attention to your program and can increase participation. It’s a totally manageable way to introduce local food into your school budget in an exciting way.
  • Harvest of the Month/Monthly Menu Items -- It’s one step up from once a year but it can still stay within your budget: try featuring ONE local item a month. It can be a sample, an entree, or a weekly feature, but when you have one item it’s super easy and fun to make a big hullabaloo around it with activities, taste tests or even lessons.
  • Taste tests -- Want to introduce a new food to your lunch menu, or give kids a chance to re-acquaint themselves with something you already serve? Try a taste test in the cafeteria--on the line, at a table, or bringing it to the kids with a tray. Take a poll to gather the kids’ opinion, which makes them feel respected and can also help you make menu decisions. Giving kids the power to help choose something that could be served at lunch can subtly nudge them to try -- and like! -- things you might think they wouldn’t touch.

We also knew that the workshop participants would have a lot more experience in this area than we would, as they had spent years and years in school kitchens cooking and baking with incredible dedication to their students. Hoping to give the participants an opportunity to learn from each other, we facilitated a discussion group around each of the three topics in our presentation, where we got to share our hurdles and tricks for getting over them. The discussion groups created a perfect cafeteria-like environment for modeling a taste test! As food service staff shared, Kirsten Gerbatsch, our fearless FoodCorps Fellow, brought around Kalispell Public Schools’ Local Squash-Lentil Hummus. Everyone took a taste and chose a “tried it,” “liked it,” or “loved it!” ballot to cast.

When the votes were tallied, the group overwhelmingly “loved” Montana-grown lentils and squash. Hooray! (Though we can’t say we were surprised. . .) In the end, it seemed like everyone, including us, walked away with at least one new strategy they’re excited about implementing in their school. Thanks to the Montana School Nutrition Association for letting us participate in this year’s conference!

This post was written by Zoe Tucker, Camille McGoven and Nicki Jimenez - the three inspiring FoodCorps members who presented at the MT SNA Conference in Great Falls in June 2014.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Digging Into Healthy Habits in School Gardens

FoodCorps service member Erin Jackson was recently asked to speak on Montana Public Radio for the Alternative Energy Resources Organization (AERO) to share her experience as a school garden educator and her ability to connect kids to real food through hands-on gardening activities. 

AERO is a grassroots membership organization serving as Montana’s hub for sustainable communities: inspiring change, connecting local leaders, and building capacity for success across the state for 40 years. If you'd like to get involved, check them out at

Erin's talk, which aired on MTPR on June 19, 2014, is called "Schools Can Build Real Relationships with Real Food" and the transcript is here below:

How many times have you heard a parent say, “I can’t get my kids to eat vegetables!” While this is, unfortunately, sometimes true, over the last two years as a FoodCorps service member at Hyalite Elementary School in Bozeman, I’ve heard AND experienced the exact opposite. Just last week, I had to ask a kindergartner to STOP eating spinach. He was picking it from the school gardens and shoving it into his mouth so fast that I feared he would strip every plant of its leaves, leaving none for others to try. What a quandary—having to ask a child to stop eating his vegetables!

Every day, I have the privilege of helping youth form enduring relationships with real food – through lessons in the school gardens, cooking classes, field trips to local farms, or taste-tests paired with nutrition education. I’ve come to believe that connecting kids to where their food comes from, in a hands-on, engaging outdoor environment, can be a key to creating healthy, sustainable communities. When a kindergartner plants the spinach seed, waters it, watches it sprout and grow, and finally, harvests it straight from the ground, he or she has a personal connection to the leafy green and is therefore more likely to try it – and even devour it – as I have witnessed many times.

Watching kids shove this calcium- and vitamin-rich super-food into their mouths, then ask for seconds or thirds, has convinced me of the power of school gardens to foster lifelong healthy eating habits. The students say it best: “You just made me love spinach! I used to hate it, but this is the BEST spinach I’ve ever had!”

And it’s not just spinach. One parent asked me, “Are you the one planting with the students? My son wouldn’t TOUCH vegetables and now he’s raving about radishes!” After the students made a salad using kale from the gardens, another parent told me that her son wouldn’t eat anything green before this but now he likes kale so much that he wants it every day! 

Our hands-on approach to growing, preparing, and tasting vegetables has translated to the school lunch program as well. Teachers report that their students choose a wider variety of fruits and vegetables and are more willing to try unfamiliar foods than they were a year ago. Given the chance, kids can be much more adventurous tasters than we give them credit for!

In addition to encouraging kids to embrace fruits and vegetables, our school gardens help foster an understanding and appreciation of the natural world. Sitting beneath the towering sunflowers in this outdoor classroom, we feel the rough potato leaves and the smooth flower petals, listen to bees pollinating our flowers, hunt for bugs with magnifying glasses, smell mint, sage, and thyme, and taste crisp, spicy rainbow radishes. Learning is brought to life as every sense is engaged.

Caring for plants in the school garden also instills the principles of environmental stewardship. It’s delightful to watch as third graders take ownership of their cabbage plants by naming them, checking on them at every recess, and proudly showing them to their parents. These cabbages were part of a math lesson in which students measured their plant’s height and diameter every week—just one example of garden integration with the Common Core Curriculum Standards.

Here in Montana, a challenge with our garden program is that the school year doesn’t overlap with the main growing season. In an effort to continue garden learning over the summer, I teach a Junior Master Gardener program for third through fifth graders. Following a farm to school theme, the students learn basic gardening skills and how to harvest and prepare meals with the fresh produce. We also visit local farms and help harvest the Gallatin Valley Food Bank’s gardens, which make it possible for everyone in the community to enjoy fresh food. Besides being fun and useful, the Junior Master Gardener program undoubtedly lessens what teachers call “summer learning loss” – the students stay engaged in the science of the growing cycle, practice their math skills while converting recipes, and improve their writing by keeping a garden journal.

And next month, we’ll be building a greenhouse at Hyalite Elementary to extend learning opportunities into the school year. This project is a collaboration between our 4th and 5th grade Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM, club and many local organizations. Plans are underway to use the greenhouse to continue to integrate lessons with our state and national core curriculum standards.

My time with FoodCorps at Hyalite Elementary has reinforced my belief in the value of outdoor, experiential learning. If it were up to me, every school in Montana--and across the country--would have a program like this!

Friday, June 13, 2014

It’s a bird, It’s a plane, It’s a …. Lentil?

Lentils are the new superheroes at West Elementary School in Butte Montana. Throughout the month of May students got to learn about lentils, our May “Harvest of the Month” item. In December, the Butte School District started serving one local item each month for our new Harvest of the Month program. It has been a great way to teach food and nutrition to kids one item at a time and to get kids really excited about trying new fruits, vegetables, whole grains and proteins. Starting a program like this one is also a great way for schools to begin buying local foods to prepare and serve for lunch. I have learned a lot from piloting our program this year, especially during this last lentil month.

As part of my FoodCorps service I am working with the Butte Director of Central Services, Mark Harrison. He runs the entire school food program, which is a huge job I’ve realized. We started Harvest of the Month in December as a way to commit to buying local food throughout the year, and so far Mark has purchased local butternut squash, apples, potatoes, whole grain rolls, beef, and lentils.

I have taught classes about these items and done some cafeteria events in order to get students interested and excited to try these new foods on the lunch menu. I myself am learning about these food items as I prepare lessons for the students. Did you know that grains come from the seed part of grass plants and that whole grains use the entire seed? To teach this concept to the students, a parent and I brought wheat shafts, wheat berries, whole wheat flour and dough into the cafeteria and showed the kids how whole grain bread is made.

I realized after the whole grain roll cafeteria event that most students, parents, and teachers had no idea that the Butte Pubic School District was serving local food. My lonely posters in the cafeterias just weren’t enough to spread the word. Being a new program, it seemed like we were scrambling to decide on and purchase our local item last minute, leaving little time to teach classes about it. So in March our Farm to School Committee decided to focus on creating educational activities and promotion for May’s Harvest of the Month as a sort of test run at West Elementary School.

One of our committee members suggested that students guess the number of lentils in a jar to win a prize. I counted out around 17,600 lentils and put them in a small mason jar (ok, I counted 800 in a Tablespoon and estimated from there). Throughout May, the school librarian had the students guess the number in the jar. This competition got students excited to try this new mystery food! I also did a lesson with all of the 2nd grade classes. We sang “The Lentil Song” and talked about all the activities we do with our bodies that require protein. To familiarize students with the variety of lentils that are grown in Montana, we also looked at six different kinds of lentils and matched the lentils with their names, like Black Beluga and Petit Crimson.

The day before my class with the 2nd graders, I happened to read an article about the “Farm to Table” movement, which argued that in order for the movement to truly support local, sustainable agriculture we need to support not just the popular crops like tomatoes, but also the crops that help improve soil health, like nitrogen-fixing legumes. This article inspired me to include the benefits of legumes in my lesson, and at first I was stumped at how to teach 2nd graders about nitrogen fixing but then decided to have the students act out a skit. The parts included nitrogen in the air, nitrogen in the soil, tomato and carrot plants, and lentils. The lentils helped capture the nitrogen in the air and brought it down to the soil to help the tomato and carrot plants grow, giving the lentils their superhero status! The students loved the play and they were asking when the cafeteria would be serving these superhero lentils that helped them grow strong and helped the soil.

 The students were thrilled to finally get to try the lentils last Tuesday. We did a taste test with the Kindergarten, first and second grades. The results from the taste test were mixed, with about half of the Kindergarteners and first graders liking the lentils and more than half of the second graders liked the lentils. I have learned a lot from our six months of working to source and serve local food in the public school system. I have learned about the importance of planning ahead and communicating clearly with producers and food service staff, which gives us time to expand the education around the items we are serving. We have already set out our Harvest of the Month schedule for next year starting with summer squash in September!

I also have learned that I can’t make Harvest of the Month a reality all on my own and need to enlist the help of enthusiastic parents, teachers, principals and community members to educate students and spread the word.

The most important lesson I’ve learned lately, though, is that when I can turn a fruit, vegetable, grain or protein into a “superhero,” it greatly increases the chance of kids trying it in the cafeteria!

This post was written by Andi Giddings, the FoodCorps service member in Butte, America. Andi will be serving with FoodCorps Montana for another year, and we are so exited to see the Harvest of the Month program develop in Butte Public Schools!