Thursday, January 31, 2013

Garden Dreams

Teena Thompson is a Service Member in Rocky Boy.

We wonder if we will ever get to garden again on this cold January day with snow blanketing all of our land here in Rocky Boy Reservation. As temperatures drop below zero, it seems like a far-fetched dream. But dreams are important.

A Rocky Boy sunrise in January.
As recently as 50 years ago, the prospect of having their own school district was a mere dream for Rocky Boy. However, in 1970, the Reservation’s petition was finally approved and now serves hundreds of students, mostly Native Americans, living on or near the Reservation. Since its inception, Rocky Boy School District has not only taught reading writing, and arithmetic, but has also served to help students to understand the sacrifices and hardships and dreams of our ancestors, to understand what it means to be Chippewa-Cree.

As a FoodCorps member, I work regularly with Rocky Boy School District on nutrition education as well as school gardens.  By helping children plant, grow, and harvest their own food, learning through experience about the land our ancestors knew well, I believe that I’m contributing, in some small way, to this larger mission.

Teena passes out garden box awards to Rocky Boy
Elementary students.

As I walk through the halls of Rocky Boy Elementary, I am warmed by the bright smiles of students eagerly asking when they can begin building our school garden. “Ms. Teena!” A young second grader exclaimed just the other day, “Can we grow vegetables from our garden for our end of the year barbecue?” Another student enthusiastically expressed his desire to plant an apple orchard around the garden so he and his family could eat all the apples they wanted and never have to buy one from the store again!

Their enthusiasm is contagious, and I too dream big. I dream that the school garden that we will build this spring will be a lively hub for the whole community. I dream that the garden will spark a lifetime of learning that can be passed from student to student no matter what time of year. I dream that the food that we grow will nourish their minds and fuel a passion that keeps them coming back season after season. And I dream that every child I serve has a dream, and the seeds and soil and sun to nurture it to life.
Teena shows the garden space she has been granted from the Rocky Boy School District.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Things Are Growing in the Mission Valley

Nicki Jimenez is a FoodCorps Service in Ronan.

I’ve been amazed at how things continue to sprout—be they plans or plants—despite the dearth of sunlight and warmth in the Mission Valley. It is amazing school and community members who are making the growth happen.

In Dixon, an incredible parent and farmer, Pattie, is leading the effort to organize the community around building a garden that could transform Dixon. Pattie realized the need for a school garden when kids began flocking to her farm. There, they find a safe, positive space and have revolutionary experiences. Pattie was inspired by witnessing the wonderment of a twelve-year-old pick and try his first cucumber. She sees how important a garden is for children’s growth and wants to make it central to the school.

Pattie also wants to empower kids to feed themselves. Dixon is a community with tremendous need—95% of the school’s 70 students depend on free or reduced lunch and many rely on a backpack program, a longer school year, and summer school to get the meals they need. Lack of access also contributes to Dixon’s food insecurity—the town is more than 20 miles from the nearest grocery store, making it a food desert. But Pattie believes that these conditions do not mandate that Dixon kids be cut off from a healthful diet, if kids learn to provide for themselves.

Now the Dixon school community is envisioning a garden integrated into all school programming where all kids will learn to grow food, drawing on a wealth of local agricultural knowledge. While they are nurturing plants, kids will also develop self-esteem and the confidence that they can nurture a future they want to see for themselves. This will, in turn, cultivate pride and hope in the community.

Pattie already has support from the district for a site on school grounds, teachers who will use the space, kitchen staff who will serve the produce, and community members who will donate time and supplies. The 21st Century afterschool program will be the anchor of the garden within the school. Arlene, the director, Pattie, and students have already begun preparing the garden space:

I have the privilege of working with these amazing community members to write grants and seek resources for the Dixon School Garden. The needs of the kids and families and the positive impact the school garden will have in Dixon are so overwhelmingly compelling that it was a challenge to capture in words. But channeling the knowledge and passion of Pattie and others who know the community well, I hope my efforts will bring Dixon what’s needed to get the garden going.

While plans grow in Dixon, plants are already beginning to grow in Ronan and Pablo. In November and December, 2nd through 4th graders in 4-H afterschool gardening clubs grew “plant pals” to learn about soil and practice giving plants what they need to thrive. Here, one of my students shows me the stubble of grass on her pal’s head and the letter she wrote to her new friend. The next week, the grass had grown into a head of “hair” and the kids were talking about how they would style it!

With this growing practice under their belts, afterschool club students will begin growing indoor gardens in January. The Flathead ReservationExtension Office, which coordinates 4-H activities on the Reservation, is letting Pablo and K. William Harvey Elementary schools a grow rack, equipped with lights, to use for indoor gardening. But without the support of the school community members, the grow racks and plants wouldn’t have a place to live. Thankfully, four teachers and the principals have volunteered to house grow racks and containers for indoor gardening! And things will continue to grow in the Mission Valley this winter.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Away from the Screens and into the Garden

Natasha Hegmann is a service member in Ennis. 

Come the wintry months of December, January, and February, the work of a FoodCorps member is not so glamorous. Gone are long, sun-kissed summer afternoons frollicing in the garden, to be replaced by weeks of harsh wind and cruel temperatures. This time of the year I find myself hunched over my computer screen, under the flickering florescent lights of my office, writing grants for cooking programs, planning garden curriculum, and perusing articles on outdoor education. The work is important, but some days I feel as though I’ve done nothing but stare at a computer screen all day.

In this digital age it is not surprising that many of the students I serve also spend an inordinate amount of time plugged in. Studies show that the average 8-18 year old spends 7.5 hours per day using screen media -- not just TVs, but also cell phones, computers, and tablets. Often, children are engaged with more than one type of screen media at once. Most kids spend less than 30 minutes outside engaged in play or sports per day. Having seen students thrive in outdoor education settings, I see this lack of engagement with the natural world as a lost opportunity. One fascinating study found that exposure to nature and immersion in natural settings has a measurable positive effect on higher-order cognitive skills and creativity (Atchley, 2012).

Reflecting on this data reminds me of the efforts I have made to encourage students to step away from screens and engage with the natural world. In May 2012, I worked with Ennis 3rd grade students to plan and plant the Native American “Three Sisters” in the newly constructed school garden. Before we planted the garden I explained how the Three Sisters–corn, beans and squash–help each other grow, and the students acted out the relationship I described: corn sprouts grew quickly up, providing a trellis for the beans, which twirled round and up stalks of corn, rooting them into the ground; finally a thick cover of squash plants spread over the soil, keeping in moisture and preventing weeds from growing. Students then broke into groups and chose from different heirloom varieties of corn, beans and winter squash to plant in their Three Sisters Gardens. Students left for summer vacation shortly after the garden was planted.

The Three Sisters, corn, beans, and squash, grow together in the Ennis School Garden. The Three Sisters complement each other ecologically (beans fix nitrogen in the soil which feeds the corn, the corn provides a trellis for the beans, and the squash shades out weeds and traps moisture in the soil) as well as nutritionally. 

Five months later, the same students, now 4th graders, harvested the Three Sisters Garden. They carefully observed the mature corn, beans and squash and journaled about how the garden had grown and changed throughout the season. One class cured squash and stored it in their classroom. The other fourth grade class harvested the corn and dried it in their classroom.

After harvesting sweet corn from the garden, students learned the Native American talke of the corn husk doll and used the dried husks to make their own corn husk dolls. 

The culmination of the Three Sisters Garden project was a cooking party. Students used a hand-crafted grain mill to carefully grind dried corn into cornmeal. Then, taking cues from a group of high school culinary arts students, they mixed up batter for cornmeal muffins. Throughout the 55-minute cooking activity, the students demonstrated incredibly attentive behavior–reading the recipe, following complex directions, and carefully measuring ingredients. Students recalled information about the Three Sisters from previous garden lessons and asked questions that showed thoughtful reflection on the topic, such as “if Native Americans didn’t have grain mills like this one, how did they grind corn into cornmeal?”

4th grade teachers helped grind cornmeal from Oaxacan Green Dent corn to make cornmeal muffins. 

Walking back through a year of gardening and cooking with this class highlights how much we’ve all learned and grown. Students who at first couldn’t sit still or remember the rules of the garden were calmly following directions in the kitchen classroom by the end of the year. Illustrations of corn posted outside of 4th grade classrooms are now anatomically correct -- with tassels instead of ears of corn at the top of the plants. And, through hours of hands-on teaching time, I have developed the confidence to work with a group of 26 students in the garden, kitchen or classroom. These lessons give me hope for what students can accomplish when exposed to the educational world outside of screens, and gives me inspiration to keep planning for the spring.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Weather Outside is Frightful, But the Growing is Still Delightful

Madyson Versteeg is a FoodCorps Service Member in Billings. 

Winter is here in full force, bringing blustery days, dustings of snow, and the end of the Salvation Army’s Youth Gardening Program. I wanted the last week of Garden Program to be special and memorable—something for the kids to carry with them until the start of next semester’s program in February. The Salvation Army’s youth programs ended with a recital and gallery to display the children’s various musical talents, ceramics, and textile arts. And the special treat this year…something from the “garden!” With a dormant outdoor garden, we’ve kept busy with indoor hydroponic growing, nutrition lessons, cooking and garden art projects. As we contemplated the many ways in which we could share our garden space with this larger audience, we concluded that the most compelling way would be to provide garden and local food refreshments for everyone at the recital! The refreshments included a homemade simple soft cheese with crackers and a local Gallatin Valley carrot cake.

While making these dishes, the kids were awed by the “ginormous” size of the carrots. Some eagerly gnawed them whole, while others attempted eating them like cobs of corn. After carrot shredding, baking and frosting the cake, we moved on to dish number 2. Students were equally excited to try their second cheese-making venture. This time we went with soft cheese instead of hard. Just the month before, we had gone over the basic methods and history of cheese making. I was thrilled with their retention of this lesson and enthusiasm to try a different recipe.

The students were also excited to show off their recently acquired “red crawler” worm bin. They diligently explained to their parents and other guests how they had delicately transferred the worms to their new homes and cared for them over the past couple months. A young girl recounted touching a worm for the first time and then helped her classmates demonstrate how they cover the worms with a “blanket” of shredded newspaper in addition to some left over produce to snack on for later.

I have also kept busy over the winter months taking the Environmental Science students from Billings High to the Salvation Army’s thrift store and Middle Ground where the hydroponic growing takes place. Many of these students have taken on semester long agricultural projects. I, of course, was thrilled to help facilitate some of these diverse projects. One group painted a mural exemplifying Billings’ agricultural endeavors. Another group designed and built a chicken coop out of recycled materials and then created a how-to manual on building backyard chicken coops. Several groups took on hydroponic and aquaponic growing projects where they experimented with various growing mediums, plants, and fish species. Other groups tackled larger issues of food security and healthy food accessibility in Billings through film and public awareness projects.

Throughout this process, students have kept their own blogs where they update the community on their progress, discoveries and challenges. The students even received coverage from the Billings Gazette which showcased their projects and commended them for their efforts to integrate into and benefit the community. The Salvation Army is just one example of a community organization that has directly benefited from these projects. We now have a gorgeous mural in our growing room and a plethora of innovative indoor growing ideas!

To read the Billings Gazette article click HERE