Monday, October 24, 2011

Undaunted: Montana FoodCorps’ Anina Estrem Plants Seeds in Rosebud…in October

Anina Estrem, a Communities in Action AmeriCorps VISTA serving with the FoodCorps team at the Rosebud-Treasure County Extension, shares blog eight in our weekly series of updates directly from Montana FoodCorps members.

First there were seven, then eighteen, then thirty-six, now forty-one! Tucked away in the Rosebud school greenhouse, five tiny tomato plants have just emerged from the tray planted by the 8th graders over a week ago to join those of other classes. The Rosebud 8th graders has been getting annoyed that their plants hadn’t sprouted while the 7th graders’ were flourishing, and even I was beginning to worry about what we might have done wrong. But now almost all of the students who planted seeds have a little speck of green growing in their pot, which collectively represent Rosebud’s new school garden! October’s a strange time to be starting a garden, but I was not willing to let our ideas or enthusiasm stagnate over the long winter. Instead, students have installed heaters, fans and lights in the greenhouse so our plants will stay cozy even when it’s bitterly cold outside.
The small town of Rosebud is just west of Forsyth, where I am serving with the Rosebud-Treasure County Extension Office. Together, Rosebud and Treasure Counties encompass an enormous stretch of land and a population of nearly 9,000 people. While most of this land is agriculture, the majority of crops are commodity-scale grains, so finding enough local, fresh food to feed even this sparse population is a truly ambitious endeavor.
My service area also extends thirty miles west of Forsyth to Hysham, where finding food (local or not) is an even bigger challenge. Hysham has been without a grocery store for three years, and residents drive to Forsyth or the seventy miles to Billings for their shopping. To try and change this, a group of residents and I are exploring the idea of a cooperative grocery store, an enormous—at times overwhelming—project. Still, it may make all the difference for a town where the average age is increasing, while the population numbers are decreasing. We hope that a cooperative store which depends upon the support and labor of the community will not only provide better access to high-quality food, but also increase economic opportunities so that we can keep both dollars and residents in the area.
The biggest challenge for both of these projects is that Eastern Montana is a tough place to make a living, and for many residents, local food is not the top concern: there is barely enough time to do the shopping as it is. So while my specific FoodCorps goals are to build a school garden in Rosebud, launch a Farm to School program, and conduct hands-on nutrition education with the kids, my bigger mission in these communities is to offer the model of local food as a way not only to improve the health of individual, but also entire communities.
Proving that this is possible may be the hardest part of the process, but it is also the most rewarding. The plants for Rosebud’s school garden may be still be miniscule, but right now four trays planted by 7th-10th graders span the wall of the greenhouse that the students cleaned out earlier this fall, and soon Gardener’s Delight, Super Sweet, Italian Ice, and Little Girl Hybrid Cherry tomatoes will grace the garden, and eventually the cafeteria!
In my year here the Rosebud garden may only provide the cafeteria with a meal’s worth of vegetables, and the Hysham grocery store may take years to get off the ground. Still, in a region with approximately 2 people per square mile, I’ve already learned that every effort counts for double. The key is to start small, like Rosebud’s tomato sprouts, and with patience and cultivation, I’m confident we’ll see fruit.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Garbanzos, Garlic, and Glendive

Anne McHale is an MTCC AmeriCorps VISTA serving with the FoodCorps team in Glendive, MT.

Anne McHale, serving with Glendive's Community GATE, shares blog seven in our weekly series of updates directly from Montana FoodCorps members.The second-grader’s face went from scrunched-up skepticism to wide-eyed excitement when I explained the orange scoop between her corn dog and nachos was “a lot like pumpkin.” Actually, the conversation went like this:
“Did you try some squash?”
“How come?”
“Don’t you like pumpkin?”
(vigorous nodding, followed by brief thoughtful reflection and then a miniscule taste of the bright orange squash)

This was the first day of Farm to School Month, and as a Montana FoodCorps member serving in Glendive, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find the district administration receptive but realistic in recognizing the challenges to sourcing school food locally. In this fiercely proud and sparsely populated corner of the state, the messages of food independence, and healthy bodies, healthy economies resonate. Most Glendivians are few, if any, generations removed from agriculture, making it much easier to tout the benefits of a farm-fresh diet.

Despite a genuine understanding of the value of “local,” the district administration and kitchen staff have valid concerns: Will the kids eat it? Do staff have time to prepare food from raw ingredients? And what will we have to cut from the budget to make it happen?

Still, inspired by state and national coverage of Farm-to-School Month celebrations, we decided to tackle the challenges and planned local food events in October. The schools were interested in trying local squash, local apples, hummus made from local garbanzo beans and local garlic, and Montana-made lentil burgers from Mission Mountain. It quickly became evident what all we’re up against and what’s at stake.

We pieced together 100 lbs of buttercup, butternut and a locally dubbed “green squash” requiring multiple trips to the farmer’s markets in town. After hours of hard, hot volunteer labor in the Dawson County High School kitchen it was defeating to see that we had about half of what was needed to fulfill the federal vegetable requirements. It meant a last-minute raid of the local-food store, an unscheduled trip out to a sympathetic farm and snatching the prize pumpkin off my own front stoop. No squash within a 50 mile radius was safe save four pretty enough to act as “display squash” on each of the lunch lines.

For the most part, the K-2 kids at Jefferson School where I spent lunch weren’t completely crazy about the “whipped squash” that was prepared with butter. However, nearly all the kids could be convinced to try the squash when it was likened to pumpkin, with which many are familiar. The students I talked to who were enthusiastic about the vegetable serving offered interesting insights to the psychology of healthy eating: from what I could gather, members of the clean plate club came from families who regularly prepared squash in some form.

While for some folks this lack of familiarity with local foods is an argument against trying them in schools, for me as a FoodCorps member the gap in education is the primary motivation. It’s a learning process for everyone involved, myself definitely included. If we had layered brown sugar on the squash would it have been a bigger hit? Probably. Is that a compromise we want to make? We’ll do squash again, and my bet is that more kids will try it each time, regardless of the added sugar. For FoodCorps members as for students, the cafeteria is an important classroom.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Montana FoodCorps Member Becky Naab Rocks Out with Root Vegetables

Becky Naab, a PRC AmeriCorps VISTA serving with the FoodCorps team with the Livingston School District's Farm to School Program, shares blog six in our weekly series of updates directly from Montana FoodCorps members.

Twenty second graders burst into rowdy applause as I entered the classroom. I felt like a rock star, but instead of an electric guitar, I wielded garden-fresh carrots, radishes, potatoes, parsnips and turnips.

Of course, even a rock star doesn’t build a fan base overnight, and I’ve been lucky that I’ve already had the chance to work with each of the five second grade classrooms in the Livingston School District once a week since the first day of school. For me, the fact that I have this direct time in the classroom is pretty powerful, because I get to spend 25 minutes every day teaching kids about food, where it comes from, and why it’s good to eat healthy, and locally-grown.

Sometimes I feel like I’m training mini FoodCorps volunteers. But what really gets me excited is the fact that every week, every single second grader in Livingston has math, science, reading, gym, art, music, and FARM TO SCHOOL!

Our lessons started at the beginning by planting radish seeds in window boxes. Unfortunately, as sometimes happens with food production, no real radishes grew. The kids had gotten attached though, so we went them home with the seedlings for a little extra TLC.

The good news is that we did have radishes from a local farmer, which I sliced up and brought to class as part of a root vegetable taste-testing extravaganza.

Here’s how it works

Each taste test consists of the five root vegetables I mentioned before: carrots, potatoes, turnips, parsnips, and the almighty radish. After a quick lesson on what root vegetables are, students try bite-sized pieces of each one. Then they record their preference by circling a smiley face if they like what they tried, a confused face if they weren’t sure how they feel, and a sad face if they didn’t like it.

The results are really interesting. Carrots seem to be a unanimous favorite (as expected). More surprisingly, parsnips seem to beat out potatoes. The radishes and turnips get a mixed review. The greatest thing about these tests is that the kids aren’t scared to give the veggies a try, even if they’ve never had them before—yet another example of how kids will eat vegetables if presented in the right way.

While the taste tests have been successful, the real success will be if the kids pick out a parsnip over peanut M&Ms at the grocery store, or better yet, actually plant them in their family gardens. In the meantime, though, I’m confident that they’ll at least enjoy the healthy vegetables that the cafeterias will serve on our October 24th all-Montana meal day. And get this: the theme is “Montana Food Rocks!”

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Finding Farm to School has Legs (for Dancing)

Katie Wheeler is an MTCC AmeriCorps VISTA serving with the FoodCorps team in Kalispell, MT.  Today Katie, serving with Flathead Valley Community College's Farm to School Program, shares blog five in our weekly series of updates directly from Montana FoodCorps members.

Last week, I received the greatest call to-date during my service as a Montana FoodCorps member working with Flathead Valley Community College’s Farm to School program. On the line was Jennifer Montague, the Kalispell Food Services Director. “I didn’t know who else to call,” she said. “I couldn’t think of anyone else that would be excited by this.”
I straightened my back and pressed the phone close to my ear. What could it be? I wondered.
For the past three months, I’d been collaborating with Jennifer to source local produce for the Fresh Fruits and Vegetable Snack Program. In Kalispell, four different elementary schools qualify for this federal program which aims to get extra servings of healthy food into the bellies of kids in schools where 50% or more of the students are from low-income families.
But Jennifer and I had already celebrated the enthusiastic response to the fresh sliced cucumbers, Dixon melons, and fresh Flathead cherries, that we’d been serving from the Western Montana Growers Cooperative. Teachers had flagged us down in the halls to tell us that their young students were gobbling up the flavorful produce, which was not the case with the “slimy” prepackaged fruits and vegetables of previous years.
So I wondered, what new update had Jennifer so excited?
“The fruits and veggies that we’ve procured locally have been cheaper than those bought from [a national food service company that will remain nameless].”
My mouth fell open.
You see, one of the top concerns for those of us working on Farm to School is whether the local food will be too expensive, a factor that could make or break a nascent program such as ours.
But the more I’ve gotten to know people here in Montana, the more I’ve really wanted Farm to School to succeed. “Supporting local farmers” and “strengthening local communities” is no longer an abstract concept. For example, at a recent FoodCorps training, I met Jacob and Courtney, farmers who marry modern ecological principals with the values of their grandparents. My brother’s friend Steffen drives the truck for the Western Montana Growers Cooperative in Arlee. And my neighbor has introduced me to her friend Casey, who grows lentils and barley for the lentil burger the FoodCorps team is testing out in our schools this month.
Casey Bailey takes a break from growing crops for kids.
The list goes on: A chef in Whitefish. Board members for Nourish the Flathead. A co-founder of a natural foods company. I’ve listened to them all talk with such great passion about creating more local, sustainable and healthy food systems, and it’s warmed my heart to know I am a part of something so much larger.
But I’ve also worried about whether the Farm to School program I’m working on could really be an asset to this movement—to them.
Montana is big geographically, but the people are closely connected.
So Jennifer was right to expect that I would share her enthusiasm for what might seem to others like a minor budget detail.
“Awesome!” I said into the phone. Okay, maybe I even shouted. I smiled so hard my cheeks hurt. I hung up the phone and did a little dance around the office.
Ladies and gentleman, that’s it, I thought, I’m throwing in the towel—my work here is done. How can it get better than this?
But after a few more minutes of celebration, I sat back down to work. I believe that school food can, and will, get even better than this. And, like my new friends and colleagues working on Montana-based food systems, I’ll keep working hard to make it so.