Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Lea Howe Begins the Conversation with Cookies

Lea Howe, an MTCC AmeriCorps VISTA serving with the FoodCorps team with Boulder's 21st Century Learning, shares blog four in our weekly series of updates directly from Montana FoodCorps members.

I checked my watch: 1:00 a.m. The kitchen of Boulder Elementary School still smelled of cinnamon and ginger as I sprayed the last bit of cookie dough from an industrial metal tray. During tomorrow’s farmers market, these Heart Healthy Cookies, I hoped, would lure people into conversations about whole foods, the importance of supporting local agriculture and, of course, provide a chance to share simple, healthy, delicious recipes.

As a Montana FoodCorps member serving with Boulder’s 21st Century Learning Program, it’s the conversations, not the cookies, that I’m most interested in. Since I’m a newcomer to this tightly-knit community, I’ve been anxious about making as positive and unobtrusive a first impression as possible. But how does one begin a conversation about broken food systems that have resulted in rampant diet-related disease, job loss, ravaged ecosystems, and a world where people no longer know their farmers nor question the source of their food? It’s not uplifting material, to say the least, and I certainly had no desire to be only the harbinger of bad news.
Beginning a conversation can be like pulling hen’s teeth.

For that reason, over the past few months I’ve been honing the art of ‘beginning a conversation.’ I’ve spent much of my time getting a lay of the land, learning what makes this little town of Boulder “tick.” I observe my surroundings. I participate in as many events and local activities as possible. I ask questions. (A lot of questions.) And I listen. I’ve even picked up the “Two-Step.”

But it was during a late night baking spree at my house, when sweet smells wafting from the oven had beckoned the rest of my housemates into lively conversations, that it hit me. COMFORT FOOD. Food that makes people feel at ease – the x-factor that makes food such a powerful tool for social change.

Enter the Heart Healthy Cookies project. Many 21st Century Summer Program elementary school students were already growing and harvesting ingredients in the school gardens. So why don’t we walk over to the school kitchen to make—what else—cookies?

Now, the Heart Healthy Cookie menu has evolved to include items such as Banana-Sweetened Montana-Oat Chocolate Chip Cookies, Community Garden Grown Carrot and Zucchini Date Muffins, Backyard Applesauce-Sweetened Ginger Molasses Cookies, and Montana Oat and Nut Bars with dried Flathead Cherries.

The kids then help sell the cookies at the farmers market. It’s amazing to hear them talk with pride about the nutritious benefits of whole grains, or the way that seasonal cherries can make your cheeks pucker. Since we never use more than a dozen ingredients in any baked good, and all the ingredients are easy to pronounce, even an eight year old can be a confident messenger.

At the same time, this simple project translates to children that are taking stewardship roles in the growing and harvesting processes, learning the dying craft of culinary arts, and re-acquiring taste buds for healthier, wholesome foods. Students, teachers, parents, locals are all invested, sparking discussions about other meaningful changes we might make in our food system—changes that taste good, too.

Sure, sometimes I find myself staying up late to finish up the baking after the kids have gone home, but, in some ways, I actually enjoy the methodical measuring and mixing, stirring and scraping--a moment of quiet to reflect on the week’s whirlwind of conversations, and to look forward to the ones to come.

Try it yourself!

Zucchini Date Muffins
(Muffins are vegan, soy free, and can be gluten-free if you substitute GF flour)
Yields:12 muffins
  • 2 cups whole wheat pastry flour (or substitute with all-purpose GF flour, or regular all-purpose flour)

  • 2 tsp. baking powder

  • 1 tsp. baking soda

  • 1/4 tsp. ginger

  • 1 tsp. cinnamon

  • 1/4 tsp. salt

  • 1/2 cup applesauce

  • 1/4 cup coconut or olive oil

  • 1/4 cup almond milk

  • 1/3 cup sucanat or sugar (this will make the muffins moderately sweet; use 1/2 cup for sweeter muffins, but keep in mind that the dates will add sweetness too)

  • 1 1/4 cup shredded zucchini

  • 2/3 cup chopped dates, tossed in a little flour so that they don’t clump together
1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2) Mix all dry ingredients (save sugar) in a large bowl.
3) Whisk together applesauce, oil, milk, and sucanat, and pour them into the dry ingredients.
4) Fold ingredients together till just mixed, and then fold in the zucchini and dates.
5) Pour batter into muffin tins and bake until golden brown — about 12-15 minutes.
*From ChoosingRaw.com, a nutrition blog with lots of delicious, healthy recipes.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Ode to Dillon: Leah Grunzke on Self-Sufficiency, Rural Fridays, and New Beginnings

Leah Grunzke, an MTCC AmeriCorps VISTA serving with the FoodCorps team at UM Western in Dillon, shares blog three in our weekly series of updates directly from Montana FoodCorps members.
Dillon, oh Dillon. Home to bountiful wildlife, a lavish watershed, heart-stirring mountains and a million miles of untold backroads to explore, you’re enough to make an outdoor-lovin’ gal giddy. As a Montana FoodCorps member working to connect UM Western’s Campus Community Garden with Beaverhead county K-12 kids, I’m pleased to be serving in this community of 4,000 or so folks, nearly all of whom seem to share a relaxed, can-do attitude, a hearty work ethic and a resilient pride in their community and their land. In the few months I’ve been here, exploring the possibilities for community gardening and farm-to-school connections, I’ve run into consistently spirited enthusiasm.
How important is buying local to us? Hugely important.
Incorporate new healthy foods curriculum into my jam-packed teaching schedule? Yes ma’am.
Community garden? Of course I want to help! Where do I start?
Dillon’s an easy place to fall in love with.
For many, it’s also a hard place to get by. Cattle and wheat production are the economic mainstays here; hard business to make a go of no matter where you’re at. In the last ten years, the percentage of Beaverhead County kids eligible for free or reduced school lunches jumped from 25 to 35%. A disturbing trend, indeed, but if there’s a silver lining, it’s that hard times are often the catalyst for re-examining how we do things. Montanans are self sufficient by nature, yet we’ve somehow found ourselves exporting the vast majority of food we produce. Despite the fact that Beaverhead County is largely agricultural, 90% or more of the food that we eat comes from out of state. It’s a system that doesn’t work for producers or eaters. Fortunately, in Dillon and across Montana, there is a growing movement of people who are creating a different system—learning how to grow more food (not just commodities), buying more locally-produced food, and teaching kids the value of healthy eating. You can feel the cycle of self-sufficiency coming back around.
As a FoodCorps member, I’m plugging into this movement through UM Western’s Campus Community Garden. Thanks to dedicated professors, enthusiastic volunteers, supportive administration and a totally awesome Facilities Services staff, the garden is just two seasons old, but already a flourishing community resource with over 20 plots, two greenhouses and a composting system for the campus cafeteria waste. Thanks largely to the efforts of Energy Corps member Tom Wagenknecht, a new passive solar greenhouse, complete with solar panels and a wind turbine, will provide year-round growing space. My job is to use this garden as an outdoor classroom and demonstration site to teach students and the community about growing and eating sustainably produced food.
One of the ways we’ll do this is through a unique program called Rural Fridays. Each fall and spring, kids from one- and two-room schoolhouses throughout Beaverhead and Madison counties are bussed into UM Western every Friday for six weeks to learn social sciences, language arts, music, theater and more. Education majors design the curriculum and teach the students. The theme for this fall’s Rural Fridays program is “Sustainable Agriculture,” and the classroom is the campus garden. Through this single program we’re not only reaching kids throughout our region, but also training a new force of educators who know first-hand the benefits of incorporating school gardens into the classroom. In a separate project, Dillon Middle School students will also be starting their school year at the garden, harvesting produce for lunches at a local retirement home. UM Western Nutrition students will follow this up with classroom visits throughout the year. One of the things I love about the local food movement is the way it can bring together otherwise disparate groups of people—fifth graders and college students and senior citizens and ranchers and home gardeners and college professors—to make our big valley a bit smaller.
With the pinch of fall in the air, the energy these school projects bring to the garden is picking up (we only have a couple weeks left!!), even as the season is winding down. Last week the community came together for a garden inauguration party to celebrate the tremendous momentum that’s behind pulling the Campus Community Garden together. Blue Armstrong sang a song of dedication; Roger Dunsmore, Jenni Fallein and Missoula’s Josh Slotnik read farming poetry that made us laugh and cry. As smoke from the Saddle fire hung over the sunset, nearly 100 neighbors connected in shared gratitude for the work behind us, and anticipation of the efforts yet to come. It was a lovely night, and a great beginning.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Have You Hugged Your Food Service Director Today?

Lindsay Howard, an MTCC AmeriCorps VISTA serving with the FoodCorps team at Lake County Community Development Corporation's Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center, shares blog two in our weekly series of updates directly from Montana FoodCorps members. 

The three Sysco representatives arrived half an hour early for the meeting. Yikes! I still had lentil burgers to prepare, a sign-up sheet to pull together, and flip charts to hang. I pointed them to the conference room, and hurried my pace. In another few minutes would arrive a rep from the Western Montana Growers Cooperative, as well as the school food service directors from Ronan, Kalispell, Polson, St. Ignatius, and Two Eagle Rivers School (a private tribal school), and I needed to be ready.
As a Montana FoodCorps member serving with Lake County Community Development Corporation’s Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center (a non-profit local food processing facility), my job is to form relationships between farmers and food service directors in order to get more locally-grown food into the schools. The hope is that such relationships will open up new markets for local farmers, while also improving access to healthy foods for kids. In each of the schools that I serve, more than 50% are from low-income families and qualify for the Federal Free and Reduced Lunch Program. That means Farm to School programs here are especially important, since research shows that low-income children suffer disproportionately from diet-related diseases.
Back in the conference room, we went through introductions, reviewed the agenda, and got to work. Immediately, I was blown-away by the “can-do” attitude of all in attendance. The thing is, serving local food in schools may be a straight-forward idea, but it’s a challenging reality. School food service directors have less than $1.00 per student per meal to spend on food, must follow strict nutrition guidelines from USDA, even stricter food safety guidelines, and must please the palettes of a notoriously picky clientele. Meanwhile, local farmers work overtime growing food, usually balancing outside jobs for luxuries like health insurance, and don’t necessarily have time to figure out the specific do’s and don’ts for selling to institutions like public schools.
On top of that, neither farmers nor food service directors have time to do things like wash and chop the carrots or cucumbers so that they are ready to eat by kids, which means another organization, like Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center has to step in to fill that gap, also no small feat. And then, how do we get the products from farm to processor to table? Enter the need for Sysco, with its own regulatory needs and requirements. But here we all were, on a crisp fall day just after school let out, each ready to do our part to create a healthy future for us all.
There were, of course, snacks. Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center is working hard to produce a lentil burger made from all Montana ingredients--lentils, oats, veggies, flaxseed, and eggs—which could be a perfect entrĂ©e for area-schools: healthy, affordable, easy-to-prepare, and kid-friendly. Lena, the food service director from Two Eagle River Schools said, “My kids will love the chipotle flavor – they can’t get enough hot sauce. This is perfect!” Other directors thought that the ranch flavor would work better for them. Regardless, there was something for everyone!

The response was so positive that one of the first collaborative decisions for our group was to feature the all-Montana lentil burger at each of the schools as one of October’s Farm to School Month activities. Yes! I checked this first action item off my list.
Building on this positive decision, I then nervously asked the bigger question: would each school also be willing to serve all-Montana meals on the first-ever national Food Day, October 24? As each food service director nodded an emphatic yes, I almost jumped out of my seat to hug each one of them! I just simply could not believe they were so willing to take on extra work in order to support local food and child nutrition.
In all the excitement, I even found myself volunteering to help create the Montana meal-day menus. Gulp. It's true, I’ve been to culinary school, but school meals are a whole different ball game. I’m nervous, but excited by the challenge: will it be roasted root vegetables with Montana beef stroganoff and pasta from Polson’s Country Pasta? Or chili made with local beans and beef served with scratch-baked rolls? Either way, I’ve got my work cut out for me. Fortunately, after this meeting, I can at least rest assured that I don’t have to go it alone!

Left to right: Dave Prather, Western Montana Growers Cooperative; Katie Wheeler, MT FoodCorps, and Lindsay Howard, blog author and MT FoodCorps

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Labor Day Recognition for MT FoodCorps!

This Labor Day weekend Montana media celebrated the hard work of Montana's FoodCorps in the Helena IR, calling us "soil soldiers," and on the front page of the Sunday Missoulian, noting that we've "inspired a national effort to eat local, slim down."

We're so honored to be recognized for our labor--but should we feel bad that so much of what we do is fun?