Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Nourishing the Flathead

Katie Wheeler is a FoodCorps Service Member in Kalispell. 

There are a number of reasons I love the Flathead Valley, too many to count really. Sure, there’s the beautiful Swan mountain range, Glacier National Park, Flathead Lake, and Flathead National Forest.  But in the end, like with any place, it’s the people who tie me here most. 

I’ve been incredibly fortunate to connect with so many truly good people, not just here in the Valley, but in all of Montana. And not just individuals, but groups of people who are doing some of the most inspirational work I’ve encountered. Montana FoodCorps has done a fantastic job of introducing us service members to all of the right people. 

We’ve been trained by, or just had casual meetings with, employees from OPI Team Nutrition, the Department of Agriculture, Alternative Energy Resources Organization, individual farmers and processors, the list goes on. 

I’ve had the pleasure of working with a handful of said groups and more, but there is one in particular that holds a particularly special place in my heart. 

Farm Hands Nourish the Flathead is a group of women who took me under their wings from day one.  And boy, did they come on strong... 

“You should meet this person and this person…and go to this event…and work on this grant…help on this project…and go to this conference…”

They certainly helped me hit the ground running, and after about six months, they decided to invite me onto their board.  I was honored by the offer, but so nervous. 

My mind raced…

Do they know my age?  I never imagined I’d be on a board at a time when I felt just so ridiculously inexperienced (or ever…).  Are they choosing me only because I’m young and na├»ve and don’t mind working 24/7?  What can I possibly bring to the table that they don’t already have?  What if I don’t have the skills they hope or believe I possess?  What if I fail miserably? 

I sincerely debated accepting their offer for straight fear that I would disappoint all of these women who I so admired. 

But of course I accepted, and as it turns out, it might be the best choice I’ve made in the last year and a half. 

They’d already done so much for this Valley, such as building a community garden at Flathead Valley Community College, setting up SNAP and SNAP2 at the Whitefish and Columbia Falls farmers markets, and creating the Farm Hands map. And there is so much more to come from us, including our grant from the Whitefish Community Foundation to fund senior coupons for the markets as well. 

Jean’s faith in community and dedication to volunteering, Barb’s big ideas and loyalty to those less fortunate, Pam’s enthusiasm and work ethic, Jenny’s expertise, humor, and ability to keep us on track, and Gretchen’s ability to exude warmth and comfort have helped shape me into the person I want to be, both professionally and personally. I love you all. Thank you for everything, but mostly for your faith in me.  

Monday, December 17, 2012

Composting at Hyalite Elementary

Erin Jackson is a Service Member in Bozeman. 

“Do you or any of the teachers have compost today?” I am greeted with this question every day between 12:02 and 12:07 pm. Who is going out of their way to collect my food scraps, you might be wondering? The “Compost Crew” team leaders of Hyalite Elementary! These self-appointed compost crew third graders visit me on a daily basis with a plastic bucket usually full of fruit and vegetable scraps from the cafeteria, in search of other compostable items.

Hyalite's compost bin, made out of wooden pallets, was a new addition to the school gardens a few weeks ago. Not only will the compost serve as an educational resource come springtime when we resume our outdoor gardening; it is also a way to keep students involved in garden activities all winter long. The best part is, I have a group of dedicated and excited students who are taking charge!

One of my biggest concerns about my position at Hyalite is the issue of sustainability. What will happen once I am gone? Fortunately, my newly formed “Compost Crew,” made up of third graders who enjoy dedicating their recess to mixing up a pile of rotting food instead of playing on the playground, gives me optimism for creating a permanent, student-directed, composting program. My vision is to delegate composting tasks to the third graders and integrate it into the curriculum, just as fifth graders are in charge of sorting our school’s recycling. This would ensure that all students are educated about the benefits of composting during their time at Hyalite. Furthermore, this task would not be placed on our already hardworking teachers. 

According to one member of the Compost Crew, the establishment of the Hyalite compost is only the beginning. “We can send home letters to tell all of the students to compost, and then they will tell all of their family and friends to compost, and then we can get the whole world to compost!” Perhaps I was overly optimistic in thinking our new compost bin was such a huge success; it looks like we have a lot of work ahead of us!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Frosty Gardening in Boulder

Camille McGoven is a FoodCorps Service Member in Boulder. 

“These are the best carrots in the whole world!”

“No they aren't. The best carrots ever grow here in Boulder!”

            This debate between two 5th grade boys on which carrots were tastier: their morning snack of carrots from Western Montana Grower's Cooperative or local Boulder Elementary School garden carrots was one in which I was happy to hear. And, after all, the best carrots in the world must come from Montana, right?

            Students at Boulder elementary are lucky enough to still enjoy some local produce for the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, even with winter quickly approaching. Earlier in November they munched on honey crisp apples from Western Montana Growers Cooperative and in the last week were able to enjoy fresh Bolero carrots from Gallatin Grown in Manhattan, MT. 

            Although the school garden is no longer in full production, students still have a blast cleaning out the beds and playing in the dirt. Even with the onset of cold weather, we still have lettuce popping up in outside raised beds and inside our greenhouse. With some new cold frames just arriving, Rochelle, my supervisor, and I are excited to experiment with them in various spots in the garden and greenhouse. And I can't wait to bring out my 1st and 4th grade classes to experiment with planting some cold hardy plants! Meanwhile, 21st Century Program students still munch on frozen garden cabbage or anything mildly green colored that clings to life in the school garden.

One of my favorite quotes in recent memory: “Miss Camille! We are playing that we are making a healthy meal and we have to pick all of these veggies and eat it! See!” A first grader then proceeded to take a huge bite of one of the last surviving cabbages in the garden.

            Besides cleaning out the garden (both by eating and digging), 1st, 4th, and 7th graders have been busy the last couple of months learning about nutrition. Fourth graders conducted a “Taste a Rainbow of Healthy Foods” taste test during the parent open house in October, using local broccoli, local apples for apple chips, freshly squeezed lemonade, blueberries, and pumpkin seeds. Also, as part of a lesson focused on whole vs. processed foods, the fourth grade class conducted an experiment on the effect that sugar and acid in soda can have on teeth. The results: after a week submerged in a container of Coke and Diet Coke, the hardboiled egg shells became stained and weakened. And contrary to our initial hypothesis, the Diet Coke stained the shells more than the regular Coke! I think these students will think twice before reaching for a pop next time!

            With the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Snack Program running smoothly, I am looking forward to working closely with the principal and food service manager to help Boulder meet the criteria to win a Healthier US School Challenge award. Also, thanks to our Big Sky Fit Kids Grant, I'm excited to begin collaborating with fitness and health professionals in the surrounding area to provide new and exciting fitness and nutrition opportunities for the kids throughout the winter months. My schedule as a FoodCorps Service Member keeps filling up, and I love it!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Eating Local in the Bakkan

Anne McHale is a FoodCorps Service Member in Glendive. 

Promoting local foods in Eastern Montana provides a pretty unique set of both challenges and opportunities. While much of the country is still emerging from recession and unemployment rates reflect this, in Glendive businesses struggle to find staff, and, occasionally, have to cut down on the hours they’re open because they can’t find enough workers.

Moreover, many of the social issues that come with an energy boom are exacerbated by poor economic conditions in the rest of the country- down and out men and women come northward enticed by rumors of jobs. Some bring their families, some use their last dollar getting out here only to find there is a lag time of one to six months to get jobs that are competitive and extremely physically demanding.

In the meantime, local services from the food bank to law enforcement to waste water treatment strain under the pressures of increased population. Local people are seeing their rents double and triple and anyone looking to hire has to take into account housing shortages.

The fact that Glendive has seen this sort of boom come and go before complicates things further.  There is a hesitancy to invest in infrastructure when the tax base will plummet sooner or later. Some folks hope sooner, others later, but they all know the fickle nature of gas and oil industries. 

Farm to school and the district are not impervious to the oil boom- the biggest challenge in planning a field trip is scheduling bus drivers because everyone with a commercial driver’s license is in North Dakota making much more than the district can afford to pay. The salad bar at the middle school has been put on hold because there isn’t the staff to devote to its maintenance for the same reason.

Above and beyond that, it’s difficult to sell the administration on local food as a priority when they’re hard pressed to hire (and house) teachers mid way through the year to accommodate new students, when existing facilities don’t have enough classrooms and these same kids are often going home to tents or campers in the freezing Glendive winter.

I often emphasize the idea that local food systems can be stabilizing both economically and socially. Glendive is a historically agricultural region capable of supporting jobs and families long after the Bakken oil has been tapped out, and the economic opportunity exists to develop food processing facilities that help producers add value to their products.

As meetings between not for profit organizations often tend to do, we always seem to end up talking about how difficult it is to get funding. Unlike in other places, however, here the conversation always turns towards grants made by oil companies in nearby communities. For example, the Boys and Girls Club here received $10,000 from an oil company. Small beans for the company but a huge windfall for the club.
Another positive outcome from the influx of industry is the old maxim that it wasn’t the miners who got rich in the California gold rush but the shovel sales men. The demand from the oil field for food is astronomical, and my host organization is working with the community college to push a culinary arts program that could train people to meet this need. Along the way they’d be exposed to the farm to table ideals.

It didn’t take me long to learn I couldn’t make assumptions about this community or especially my students’ living situations. I just hope my efforts are helping them put down roots.