Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Victory Gardens

Natasha Hegmann is an MTCC AmeriCorps VISTA serving with the FoodCorps team in Ennis, MT.

“I’d like to learn how to grow tomatoes in the Madison Valley’s inhospitable, rocky soil.”
“I want to raise corn that won’t be flattened by our turbulent summer winds.”
“I’d like to be able to store onions until March.”
“I’m wondering how to protect my vegetable plants from extreme conditions – like the foot of hail we got last summer.”

What daunting requests to hear from a room full of seasoned gardeners, most of which had at least twenty years on me. These are just a few of the class expectations I heard about a month ago when I embarked on teaching an adult education course entitled “Victory Gardening.” On Day 1, the expectations for my six week course ranged from soil building, wind breaks, row cover, seed starting and seed saving to hobby greenhouses, winter crop storage and food preservation. Within the first ten minutes of class I felt as if my stomach had dropped out – had anyone read the course description?

“At one point in our history, tending a backyard vegetable garden was considered a matter of national security. What is the importance of gardening in society today? In this service-based class we’ll hear stories of victory gardens during WWII and then re-examine gardening in a contemporary context: how can gardeners make our community more resilient and self-reliant in light of high gas and food prices?”

Despite some initial skepticism and confusion among my students, after five weeks of class I feel like my Victory Gardening group has whole-heatedly embraced my intended themes.

In one of our first classes we broke down the buzzword food security in terms of the Madison Valley. What does it mean to be food secure? Are we food secure if we can shop for all our needs at Costco in Bozeman every other week? Must food be grown closer to home to ensure a food secure community? What about nutritional content – if we can’t purchase fresh vegetables at affordable prices in the Madison Valley, is our community food insecure? What does “affordable” even mean?

These discussions brought more questions than answers, but the end result has been quite tangible. The group identified seeds, their genetic diversity, availability, and ability to reproduce as viable plants as a key issue to food security. So, under the title of a brand new organization, the Madison Valley Gardener’s Network, the class is collecting heirloom seeds, cataloguing them, and propagating them. The goal of the project is to acquire basic seed saving skills (by hosting a workshop) and, eventually, to share the skills and seeds with the rest of the community through partnerships with the Ennis Elementary School and the local Caring and Sharing Food Bank.

Together with twenty frustrated gardeners, I’ve learned that gardening can be much more than a method of providing food for oneself and family. The joy and excitement that individual gardeners feel for gardening can spill beyond fenced backyards. This energy can be channeled to cultivate school gardens and to grow momentum to build an outdoor classroom, helping to foster a new generation full of enthusiasm for growing and eating healthy fresh food.

Photos from top to bottom:
On February 4th, students from the Victory Gardening class helped Madison Farm to Fork in planting cool weather crops in the groups geothermal greenhouse.

During WWII, the US government encouraged factories to provide garden space to their workers, city governments to support community gardens and individual families to tend large kitchen gardens. These gardens were dubbed “Victory Gardens,” and were intended to offset the costs of war and reduce strain on transportation and food production sectors. In earlier eras, similar programs existed, such as Liberty Gardens in WWI and Relief Gardens during the Great Depression.

Ennis Continuing Education students volunteered to help prepare beds and plant cool weather crops in the Madison Farm to Fork greenhouse in early February.

Also, Natasha recommends Roger Doiron's TEDx talk, A Subversive Plot: How to Grow a Revolution in Your Backyard.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

True Motivation

Alyssa Charney is an MTCC AmeriCorps VISTA serving with the FoodCorps team in Red Lodge, MT.

Almost late for my second grade lesson, I hurried towards Red Lodge’s Mountain View Elementary School with a large garden box in my arms. The fierce February wind didn’t want to cooperate, and by the time I made it in the door, half the soil that had been in the box was spread across the sidewalk, all over my face, and buried somewhere in my jacket. Great.

Frustrated by the weather and a hectic morning, I started making an additional list of challenges in my head (We still need approval for a garden location. Local beef prices can’t compete with the commodity stuff. Distribution between producers and consumers isn’t going to be easy. And that snow might actually never melt.).

But I knew I needed to get to class, so I set off down the hall to second grade. I started out the lesson by asking the students about the benefits of growing our own food.

“It’s healthy!”

“We’ll know exactly where it came from!”

“Cheaper than the grocery store!”
“No bad chemicals!”

Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Exactly what I was hoping to hear. But one student still had an idea, and she could hardly stay seated as she waved her hand in the air. I called on her.

“We’re going to have fun!”

Of course! I had almost left out the most important benefit of all. I felt myself quickly slipping out of the morning’s funk.

How easy it is to get bogged down by the nitty-gritty challenges in town and discouraged by the larger obstacles of Big Ag, childhood obesity, and unequal access to good food. We are absolutely fighting an uphill battle.

But that second grader’s comment put a smile on my face, and reminded me that we’re going to keep charging on up the hill, powered by the momentum of kids who are excited about getting their hands dirty and who can’t wait to find out where their food comes from.

These students have the energy and curiosity that we absolutely need. Whether they are coming up with brilliant ideas for the garden, asking me if they can munch on a few more of the radishes I brought in for a taste test, or suggesting that we get some worms to improve the quality of our soil, these kids are the ones who constantly give me hope that those bigger challenges aren’t really as impossible as they sometimes feel.

But with so much excitement about new projects, I can’t help but worry about how much an unsuccessful indoor garden box would crush these kids’ faith in the seeds (and the nutritious food) we planted.

So it’s just about the best thing ever when I’m walking down the street and two fifth graders recognize me, stopping to exclaim, “Hey! Our plants are growing!” They tell me about the basil and spinach that just germinated in their classroom box, and we chat for a minute about watering schedules and if they think the plants need to be thinned.

After telling them that I’ll be back for a visit soon, I set off down the street, once again reminded exactly who to look to when I need the motivation to keep charging forward.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Composting Success!

Anina Estrem is a Communities in Action AmeriCorps VISTA serving with the FoodCorps team in Forsyth, MT.

As Rosebud students start to file into the cafeteria, I grab a tray and join the faculty for lunch. As we eat, I talk with one of the science teachers about developing a science fair project for the 5th graders using compost. Many of the younger students don’t know exactly what composting is, so this project would be a perfect opportunity to educate the student body. We discuss experimenting whether plants--maybe beans or peas--grow better in compost or in commercial potting soil. This fits perfectly into my aspiration of using compost to start a school vegetable garden.

Every Monday and Friday, I carry the bucket we use to collect compost scraps to the cafeteria and set it up next to the garbage can. Although by now students are familiar with the process, they still occasionally dump their trays into the wrong bin, so I tape signs to each bucket stating which one is compost and which one is garbage. On the wall behind me I put up my compost poster, brand-new by request of the kindergarteners who insisted that my old sign was too boring. I hope to impress them with my use of glitter paint and colorful illustrations of compostable foods. 

Once the older students start to finish their lunches, they bring their trays up to the compost bin where I stand offering guidance and enthusiasm as they toss their lunches into the correct bins. These students hardly need my input, as composting has become a routine part of the meal. For the elementary students, however, composting has not yet lost its fascination.  

As they file in, I hear whispers of “compost day!” “look at the new sign,” and “she’s back again?” as they admire the new poster. The kindergarteners and first graders eat their lunches at the table directly in front of me, and throughout the meal I’m barraged with questions about what food can go in the compost, what will be done with the compost, and to read what my signs say. At the end of lunch they are meticulous about cleaning off their trays, precariously balancing them with one hand as they ensure every piece of carrot, each breadcrumb and scrape of applesauce goes into the compost bin. Once they finish eating, several of my ‘composting stars’ enthusiastically volunteer to help me supervise their peers as they dispose of their lunch scraps.

Behind Rosebud School sit two huge, beautiful compost bins, one of which is slowly filling up with cafeteria lunch scraps. Made from pallets and straw and wrapped in plastic, Rosebud students built these bins in November in a composting workshop with Mike Dalton, founder of Gardens from Garbage in Great Falls. Mike taught us how our leftover food will eventually transform into a rich garden fertilizer and then led the 7th-12th graders in a fun afternoon constructing these bins.  Twice a week since then I have helped students collect their compost at lunchtimes. 
Anina Estrem and Mike Dalton

By the end of lunch, I collect anywhere from a pound to thirty pounds of food waste from Rosebud’s 80 students, depending on the meal. Today was pizza day, which produced little waste, so I easily carry the bucket out to our compost bin and dump the food in with a handful of Bokashi and some straw.
Instead of traditional hot composting, Rosebud School has adopted the Bokashi method, a cold, low maintenance technique that requires adding a handful of Bokashi to the compost, which is a mix of    EM-1 microbes and wheat bran. Bokashi helps turn food waste into nutritious compost in several months instead of the year that hot composting requires and needs no turning or other maintenance. 

Although composting is not a direct aspect of FoodCorps’ mission, it has proved to be an essential tool for change in Rosebud. When gardening was first met with a lukewarm response, I had to look for other ways to engage students with their food. Composting has done just that by encouraging them to consider what is left on their plate every day. Students were astonished and excited to learn that they could recycle their food, and slowly we are transforming this enthusiasm for making compost into an interest in using it. In a region with limited access to fresh food and a short growing season, the idea of starting a school garden does not come naturally. By acting as a stepping stone between where school lunches come from and where they can end up, composting is helping to make a garden more and more feasible. I’m excited to see that a solid foundation of compost may be just what it takes for Rosebud to grow both a healthy garden and student engagement with their food.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Building Farm to School from the Ground Up

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

For a FoodCorps member like myself, partnerships are an absolute godsend and often a real surprise. This is especially the case in my work with the 7th Day Adventist Valley View Christian School, where 20-30 enrolled and homeschooled students come together to attend Enrichment and “Wilderness Days” (the quote because farming isn’t really “wilderness” in the strictest sense, but we make it work).

In the 7th Day Adventist tradition, the human body is regarded as a temple of the holy spirit and adherents take very seriously the responsibility of treating their health with the appropriate reverence-  making the school ideal and, excuse the pun, fertile ground for Farm to School efforts.  My work there has challenged my preconceptions and has afforded mental calisthenics as I attempt to adjust and refine my messages to resonate with students and their parents who are arriving at local food via channels very different from those I traveled.

To date we’ve had a cooking class where the students attempted to trace their food to its origins and a unit on vermiculture (worm composting). To say the worms stole the show is an understatement.  I would actually go so far as to say that kids love worms almost as much as they do not love squash, and at this meat-free school, it was easy to set some ground rules about what food items are appropriate to feed the worms.

The nice thing about starting a farm to school program with composting, whether it’s vermiculture, bokashi or cold composting, or more traditional methods, is that the students develop a ground-up appreciation of what it takes to produce food. In class we talked about the things we eat and how they are all ultimately connected to soil. When I asked the kids, who learn in mixed-age groups, where pepperoni comes from, I got the feeling some hadn’t made the connection that pepperoni is a product of, ultimately, pigs. The dawning realization was awesome to witness as it played across their faces.

On the other hand, many of these kids come from farming families even if the family farm is a couple generations removed. Discovering cross-over and commonalities with folks out here in Eastern Montana is what motivates me day to day and it adds further legitimacy to the point I often make in presentations: Farm to School is not a coastal import. It’s not the exclusive domain of secular urban elitists. Farm to School works in Glendive because we’re promoting deeply rooted values like independence, hard work and self determination. And Glendivians get it.