Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Eating Meat

Lea Howe is an MTCC AmeriCorps VISTA serving with the FoodCorps team in Boulder.

Johnny Grant (of the Grant-Kohrs Ranch) started ranching in the Deer Lodge Valley in the 1850’s. Since then, ranching has come to define the social, political and economic fabric of Montana. Cattle outnumber people by three to one.

Having spent my entire life in a city where people are still coming to the realization that “meat” comes from farms, it was a startling adjustment to live amidst the endless pastures of grazing cows. It was certainly the most beautiful landscape I’d ever seen. But I had a hard time reconciling this idyllic landscape with the factory farms most of these animals end up inhabiting.

And when I talked to the folks in Boulder, very few seemed to even take notice of the ranches. Rather, the ranches got lost in the views. This prompted me to begin a conversation about the business of raising animals. Everyone was eager to talk about hunting, but raising animals didn’t seem to spark the same enthusiastic dialogue.

So I decided to dig a little deeper with some of my students and have a more nuanced discussion about meat. Animals, after all, are essential parts of healthy ecosystems-- and all of us are a part of this ecosystem whether we think about it or not.

To start the conversation, I decided to take students to a small, local goat ranch during kidding season! Kathy, the “goat lady,” introduced each of her goats by name and told students a little bit about each goat’s personality. 

She led the kids over to a majestic white goat. “This is Miracle. Her mother died when she was born. We didn’t think she would make it, but she pulled through and boy, are we glad!”

“This little trouble-maker over here is named Rowdy. She knows just what to do to get a rise out of all the other goats. She can push all their buttons!”

During the trip, students learned how to harvest milk and listened to Kathy as she talked about the art of cheese making. They learned that goats are wonderful fertilizers and effective noxious weed killers. In fact, students voted unanimously to use goats over pesticides for our own weed situation back at the school!

Most importantly, students learned the incredible lengths farmers go to to bring food products such as cheese, milk and meat to their plates. They left with a new found reverence for Kathy and all the other farmers and ranchers in the Boulder Valley. There is no better education than one in which kids can be engaged with all five senses.

The “ranch” came to life that day. It was no longer just a part of the view, but rather a place where things happen. A lot transpires between the barbed wire that often gets lost in the bigger picture.  And it’s that perspective I hope to bring to the students. Taking a deeper look is the most important lesson I hope to impart. It’s not just the same old fields on the ride to school every day, but rich places where people make a living, raise food, and honor tradition.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Lessons of Spring

Leah Grunzke is an MTCC AmeriCorps VISTA serving with the FoodCorps team in Dillon.

On a mundane run to the grocery store recently, the cashier noticed me hungrily eyeballing a basket of nearby seed packets.  “Like to garden?” she asked.  My face lit up, and after a quick chat about what I was doing with FoodCorps—developing local food security and providing nutrition education to kids in our community—she was sold.  “They’re yours,” she said.  “Grow us some good food!”  She handed me a bag of dozens of seed packets.  Carrots, zucchini, basil, eggplant, kale; all would find a home at our Campus Community Garden.  The woman behind me in line perked up.  “Hey, you guys need some pots for those seeds?”  Next thing I know, I’m sitting in her kitchen as she gathers seed starting supplies to donate to the cause.

And so, finally, the winter winds are dying down.  Outside the window of my small cabin, finches wake me up with the dawn.  The air is thick with the scent of chokecherry flowers, the late-setting sun is generous in its warmth, and the soil is finally dry enough to work.  Springtime in Montana has arrived, and the garden is buzzing with activity.  The little town of Dillon feels it too, and is eager to dig in.

The problem with a warm spring and a short growing season is, it’s just impossible to wait.  The first balmy breeze that blows through town sends us scrambling to the garden, poking seeds into the soil even against our better judgment.   One of the first sunny days in March, students trouped up to the garden, cast aside their spring jackets, and got busy.  They moistened the soil, filled the pots, sowed the seeds, and packed our Solar Gem greenhouse to the gills.  They chatted casually about their favorite foods, and swapped stories of growing various veggies with Grandpa, and marveled at the difference between the tiny carrot and giant squash seeds.  They didn’t need to be told how important this “experiential education” was.  Learning by doing is intuitive, and getting your hands dirty is just fun.

By mid-April our greenhouse was bursting with starts.  The tomatoes were a foot tall!  The cukes had three leaves!  The students were beaming like proud parents.

By the end of April, our greenhouse was mostly empty.  A 12 degree night and a window left mistakenly gaping had reduced nearly all our warm-season veggies to mush.  Such is the life at 6000’, in Montana’s fickle spring!  There was nothing to do but start over.  Maybe it was the return of the sun’s heat on our backs, but nobody seemed too discouraged.  Volunteers rallied in true small-town-emergency style, and within a day the Solar Gem was packed with fresh soil and new seeds.

The students, and the garden crew, learned some valuable lessons through the ordeal.  Be patient.  Don’t give up.  Help your friends, and let them help you.  And now, with a little hard work and a lot of faith, the garden is ready to go, once again.  

Monday, May 14, 2012

So, What About that Sustainability Thing?

Lindsay Howard is an MTCC AmeriCorps VISTA serving with the FoodCorps team in Ronan.

As our year of service comes to a close, I find myself reflecting on, and almost troubled by, one of our main goals – to build community capacity and to create sustainable programs. It is easy to keep this goal on the back burner, constantly thinking about it, but never really acting on it given our limited amount of time. Looking back, my first two months flew by simply trying to figure out who’s who within the community and finding my place in it. Fall was spent organizing and planning for the first National Farm to School Month and coordinating the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Snack Program. Through winter, I really dove into more involved projects – launching the lentil patty, designing our farm-to-school website, and leading the development of a local food marketing campaign, just to name a few. So now, here we are halfway through spring with only a couple months left. I know that I’ve been working towards the values of farm-to-school programs, but is any of it sustainable?

To further the importance of this issue, it is now time to start planning and preparing for the next service member. It is beneficial to the community, organization, and volunteer that I provide resources that enable them to pick up right where I left off. A list of contacts is fine, but I hope to have projects outlined and key partners lined up for support.  With sustainability in mind, partnering with our area’s institutions seems to me an obvious opportunity.  Salish Kootenai College (SKC) is located merely a few minutes away and lends itself perfectly to create programs surrounding nutrition education and community gardening. 

Last week, I worked with SKC’s Field and Home program to provide a lentil taste testing activity in their cafeteria. Lentils, again? You’d think that I’d be tired of talking about those little legumes by now! But in all seriousness, they are one of the most amazing local foods available. Montana is the number one state in terms of production, and we ship them all over the world! Lentils store year round, which eliminates that challenging issue of seasonality that burdens many farm-to-school programs.  
We provided samples of a simple lentil soup with the recipe and a lentil fun-facts sheet. On the surface, the activity’s purpose was to inform students about the benefits of eating locally sourced foods, the health benefits of lentils, and the cost savings of buying in bulk quantities. 

However, my purpose for being there was much different. To me, it was an opportunity to meet the cafeteria staff and to engage with students and faculty. It paid off with over 30 students showing interest in various projects.

Lindsay serving lentil soup
Since the lentil tasting event provided information on how to eat and cook healthy meals on a budget, it was a natural next step to ask students to sign up for more information regarding these two topics. The potential projects stemming from this event could turn into a full time job for next year’s FoodCorps team member!  I will be setting the framework in the next month by meeting with SKC’s education department and housing department to explore those various opportunities.  A couple projects I hope to see continue are to creating a cooking class series and a student cooperative buying club, which would involve a lot of coordination, planning, and curriculum development.  I also hope that we will create a program in which SKC’s student teachers utilize the on-campus community garden to gain hands-on outdoor teaching experience with local elementary students.  Fellow MTCC AmeriCorps VISTA with the FoodCorps team, Leah, in Dillon, started a similar program with UM Western, and I will be reaching out to her for advice and best practices.

Of course, none of these projects will come to fruition by the time my service year is complete, and I am quite alright with that! It is rewarding enough to create these opportunities for next year’s volunteer and to build relationships that create a sustainable network of farm-to-school advocates. Of course, it will be up to the next FoodCorps team member to decide to pursue these projects or not, but I certainly do believe they will share our vision of partnering with our local institutions.