Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Red Lodge Cooks Up Some Winter Surprises!

Alyssa Charney is a Service Member in Red Lodge. 

“But what do you do all day now that it’s snowy, cold and gray?”

Recently it feels like a day doesn’t go by when I’m not asked some version of that question. Walking to work. In line at the grocery store. Running into parents and friends around town.

After being in Red Lodge as a FoodCorps member for over a year now, I’ve become known as “the garden girl.” Which is great. There is really no other title I’d rather wear. I worked for months to find land for the Youth Garden, and then I got to spend all summer hanging out with kids in the newly established garden, so it does make sense that people would assume that I too must rest when the garden is put to bed.

But getting kids excited about good food doesn’t stop when the ground freezes and the snow falls, because if the season for healthy eating and learning were really as short as the official “growing season” around here, we’d be in big trouble.

So what do we do all winter long?

Well, to begin with, despite the appearance of complete dormancy when one drives by the Red Lodge Youth Garden, our snow covered hoop house is actually full of life. Kale, chard, lettuce, and spinach planted by elementary school students continue to grow, now with extra protection from the row cover that was lent to me by a local farmer.

When my four regular 1st and 3rd grade classes aren’t trekking a few blocks through the snow to the garden to plant rows of garlic or to investigate what’s growing in the hoop house, we’re inside having fun in the classroom.

We recently learned about reasons to LOVE legumes (They’re protein and vegetables, make food for the soil, and can be planted again as seeds!) We then sprouted black beluga lentils to watch them grow and enjoy a delicious snack.  We learned the story of the three sisters crops (corn, squash, and beans) that the Native Americans shared when the Pilgrims first arrived. And we ground corn with mortar and pestles, to connect with the corn bread muffins we later baked and enjoyed.

And when I’m not in the garden, classroom, or kitchen, I’m dreaming up a new youth camp out on a local farm, plotting summer evening activities for the garden, or seeking new partners in town for future projects.

As I continue on with these winter activities, new surprises inspire me each day. I’m inspired by the kids who tell me the corn bread muffins we baked are better than any cupcake they’d ever had. I’m inspired by the spinach that finally germinated in the hoop house in spite of cold days outside. And I’m inspired by the persistence of community to continue to build our food system, even when the earth seems so very at rest.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Rocky Boy Elementary Gets Creative Growing Food in Windowsill Gardens

Teena Thompson is a FoodCorps Service Member in Rocky Boy.

As the frosty Montana Winter settles in, days spent outside in the garden seem to be distant memories. Snow falls every year here in Rocky Boy usually starting by October 2. Unfortunately, that did not allow enough time for me to reach each and every class in Rocky Boy Elementary, let alone secure the space and actually start planting a school garden. But that won't stop us from learning AND growing throughout this long, cold winter! 

A Halloween touch to Rocky Boy Elementary's windowsill gardens!

Fortunately, our wonderful principal has approved planting some windowsill "gardens." And that is how my "monsters" creeped their way into the classroom. The monster garden boxes are a simple recycling project that result in personal greenhouses. I began with an enthusiastic group of second graders who were eager to do some hands-on learning! For their classroom crop I choose fast-growing English radishes. With their beautiful red and white coloring and refreshing crunch, I knew they wouldn't disappoint. 

Although their teacher initially (and legitimately) worried about messes and attracting critters, she too was so excited to see little radish sprouts just one week after planting! In just a few more weeks, the second grade class will be tasting their radishes dipped in a scrumptious yogurt sauce! Now that the windowsill gardens have become a popular feature in the classroom, I have a feeling the minute we harvest the radishes, there will be eager requests for new crops!

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Russell Bears Take a Whirlwind Tour of the Missoula Central Kitchen

Peter Kerns is a FoodCorps Service Member in Missoula.

The most exciting and memorable landmark in the Central Kitchen is, according to the 60 2nd graders on their recent field trip, our giant walk-in freezer.  In a thank-you note to the kitchen staff, one young student wrote, “Thank you for showing us the walk-in freezers.  They really froze me!”  Other big hits on the kitchen tour were the 80-gallon steam-jacketed kettles and the elevator-sized rotating ovens. 

Central Kitchen Bulk Storage

But, Russell School 2nd graders were visiting the kitchen on Oct 24th for many reasons beyond being awed by the large equipment.  They were there to learn about where their food comes from, to plan a locally-sourced menu for the entire district, and to express their creativity and individuality by designing their own personal pizzas.

As some of our most regular customers, the Russell Bears were a great group to tour the Central Kitchen.  Russell School has one of Missoula’s largest free and reduced lunch programs at 57%. Additionally, Russell School is also a part of the USDA’s Fresh Fruits and Vegetables snack program for which the central kitchen sends small apples, plums, bananas, or carrots to the school everyday at snack time. 

When visiting the 2nd graders in their classrooms we started to brainstorm some menu items to include in Russell’s local meal day. Reigning in the students’ enthusiasm and creativity proved to be more difficult than I had anticipated. One student, for example, was adamant about serving local pumpkin pies. When we asked him who was going to prepare the 2,000 pies to feed each of the 6,000 students in Missoula County Public Schools, he said his mom would be willing to bake 12 of them. Another difficult task in attempting to plan a balanced, healthy, and local meal was hitting all of the required components: a local vegetable, fruit, protein, and dessert with locally-sourced ingredients. This required yet another lesson on Montana agricultural products.

Local kale chips are a frequent menu item for public school students in Missoula.

Ultimately, bringing the students to the kitchen was a phenomenal learning experience. They left with a better understanding of the challenges the central kitchens faces in preparing their school lunch such as the massive scale that the food service staff has to cook for in addition to creating well-balanced, nutritious meals. While the students ate their personal pizzas, we finally came up with a local menu that would work for our large, complex system and would also please 6,000 kids: Super nachos with local tortillas and local beef, crinkle-cut local carrot coins, local apples, and a local cherry crisp for dessert! This experience with the Russell Bears taught me the power of giving students agency in meal planning and preparation. With a little nutrition education and context, a group of second graders successfully planned a healthy, locally-sourced meal for thousands of fellow students in Missoula.

Betty, Central Kitchen Staff Member, shows off local pinto beans!