Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Spinach, the Miracle Crop!

Erin Jackson is a Service Member in Bozeman.

Early Wednesday morning I received a message from one of the teachers at Hyalite Elementary that said “Brace yourself. Gardens took a hit.” So I was prepared for, but not happy about the sight I saw when I got to the school. All of our tomatoes were snapped and bent over, the pepper leaves were wrinkled and completely limp like they had completely given up on surviving. I didn’t really blame them though – the wind had been gusting at around 30 mph for the previous 24 hours and did not seem to be stopping anytime soon. I attempted to replace the plastic on my low tunnels that had blown off over night, but it felt more like preparing a parachute for an exciting ride. Needless to say, I opted to keep the plastic off since most of the damage had been done.

I knew before we planted that the Montana climate does not bode well for weak, cold-susceptible crops like peppers and tomatoes. However, I wanted to include kids in transplanting their starts before school got out for the summer, so we decided to take the chance. Although this wasn’t the year for it, this experience provided a teachable moment for kindergartners studying weather.

Fortunately, not all of the crops were completely decimated! The tiny sprouts of peas, carrots, beets, and radishes all withstood the storm. And, of course, so had the spinach! Planted and harvested last fall, it had come back after the snowy, cold winter months - even heartier than before! So what was one more storm? Our spinach is still flourishing!

And the best part - kids LOVE it! Each day when I am out at recess, students plead, “Ms. Jackson, can I have some spinach?!” When I give them the go-ahead (I always do. Who can say no to kids eating greens?), they always enthusiastically exclaim “YES!” as if they just received the birthday present of their dreams. Who would’ve thought that harvesting and munching on spinach at recess could be so exciting for a six-year-old?

Hyalite students harvesting at recess
My success with spinach at recess further demonstrates the importance of incorporating school gardens and food education into public school curriculum. Just in the last couple weeks, all 100 kindergartners harvested and devoured huge bowls of spinach that they planted in the fall. I heard one youngster telling his parents at pick-up the other day: “Dad, we made this!” as he pointed to the spinach growing in the garden. Another said to me, “You know, it just tastes better if you grow it yourself!” And another: “I LOVE this spinach! It tastes way better than any spinach you can buy in the grocery store!”

Tasting spinach after harvest

For a school garden, especially one in a cold climate, spinach is a must. First of all, it is cold resistant, which allows it to not only thrive in Montana but grow during many months when the students are in school. This is not the case for many crops, which are ready to go in the ground right about when the kids leave for the summer. Spinach also has large enough seeds for young students to handle, requires little maintenance, is easy to harvest (kids can pick individual leaves), and it can be consumed raw - at recess! And best of all, spinach is packed with nutrients that help our kids grow up healthy!

So, if you are struggling to find a crop fit for school gardens in cold climates, plant spinach! It has been a huge success at Hyalite--just ask any student or come during recess to witness the mass devouring of spinach with your own eyes!

A happy class of Hyalite kindergartners!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Do Not Lick the Soccer Ball and Other Important Kindergarten Lessons

Camille McGoven is a service member in Boulder. 

Part of what I like to teach during the After School Program is how important both physical activity and nutrition are to a healthy lifestyle.  As a dietitian, it is easy for me to fall into doing a variety of nutrition and cooking classes, but it is imperative to show kids the whole picture, such as how fitness fits into the puzzle.

One day, I decided to set up a soccer game with my K-2nd grade group. There is not a soccer team in Boulder, so I thought this would be a fun way to introduce the game to them outside of P.E.  I have played soccer for over 10 years, so I figured I had enough background to prepare for a K-2 soccer lesson. Equipped with neon orange cones for goals, a checkered soccer ball, and a shiny new whistle, I brought my energetic group outside to the almost-Spring green grass. (I'm not sure yet if things actually turn fully green Montana...)

Even though some students have been introduced to soccer basics in P.E., I thought it was best to review the rules.  I gathered my little ones into a huddle and asked: "What is one of the biggest, most important rules in soccer?" I thought they would most likely say something along the lines of: "Don't touch the ball with your hands" or "Only use your feet to kick the ball," or even maybe, "Don't score on your own goal."

6 eager hands shot into the air to answer my question. I called on the kindergarten girl who looked most like she was going to burst if I didn't call on her: "OK Jay, what do you think?" With a confident and thoughtful look on her face, she announced, "Do NOT lick the soccer ball!"Needless to say, this was not quite what I was looking for. However, what I found most surprising was that the group did not erupt into a fit of giggles. Rather, little Jay's answer was met with nodding heads of approval by the rest of the group. We eventually established the basic soccer rules but also added  a few more Kindergarten essentials, such as "No spitting on the soccer ball."    

While attempting to coach this group of 5-8 year-olds how to navigate the game of soccer, it dawned on me that this lesson was greater than just teaching a new sport. This experience carries over into multiple facets of my service, from garden projects to menu changes; no matter how well you think you know your community or audience, don't assume you can predict how they feel or what they think about a specific topic or idea. People will always surprise you. Sometimes this is not in a good way such as lack of attendance to a community event I am hosting. It's the good surprises that stand out, however; from teachers stepping up to volunteer to make our Fit Kids Day a huge success to a 4th grader announcing to our food service manager that even with all of our menu changes and new additions of strange things like hummus and whole wheat cinnamon rolls, "There has not been a meal this year I haven't liked. You are the best cook ever!"

Boulder Elementary and Middle school's Fit Kids Day was the perfect example of this. The idea was to host a school-wide 3K and enter in the Big Sky Games Fit Kids Day by completing 30 minutes of consecutive activity as a whole school. While organizing the event, I dubbed the middle school cross country coach my advisor and together we went on to try to recruit parents and teachers to help make the event a reality. Along the way I was met comments like, "I'm worried about my class, some of the students struggle to just walk 3/4 of a mile." Or "What about the 7th and 8th graders? How will we make sure they complete the course and don't goof off?" While such fears might have been legitimate and a bit daunting, I was determined to make this event a success.  

And it was! The entire school pulled together and made the Fit Kids Day incredible! Our students surpassed all expectations. The 7th and 8th graders even helped the K-4 grades by encouraging them along the course and jogging with the those who wanted to jog. Every student finished the course in under 45 minutes. And most had big smiles across their faces as they sprinted across the finish line! In fact, the Fit Kids Day was such a success, I had both teachers and students tell me we should do the 3K twice a year, instead of just once!  Some even thought we should do it EVERY Friday!

Ultimately,  I think there have been two important lessons learned: 
1) Don't lick the soccer ball, and 
2) If you give people a chance, they will likely surprise you. In a good way.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

My Car as a Metaphor

Anne McHale is a Service Member in Glendive.

I’m a person who enjoys variety in my days, so my position as a service member is a pretty good match.

In a week I’m likely to run between various farms, gardens, schools and the Boys and Girls Club here multiple times. Sometimes I feel like I’m living that riddle about the farmer with the fox, a goose and a bag of beans. In case you're not familiar with this riddle, here’s a like to the Wikipedia article: .

Gardening is a pretty material-intensive activity, especially this time of year. Luckily I have a trusty steed in my sedan which is often filled to the brim with plant starts, bags of compost (and occasionally worm composters), recycled containers, bins of local food, and scattered carrot tops. I imagine if I were to water my floor mats, diverse spilled seeds would bloom into a model of permaculture.

Children’s artwork often decorates this mess and a scattering of receipts for bought materials inevitably take flight each time I cruise with the windows down. I grab for the slips as planting soil swirls around me and settles into a layer over everything. In a past life, I loved how my car smelled when bringing coffee beans home from the store, or pastries. Now I love the days my car smells like warm, rich soil and it’s a good thing, because those days are most days these days.  Maybe producing soil scented air freshener will be my next entrepreneurial pursuit, and wouldn’t the world be a pretty nice place if there was a market for that?

Here is a photo diary of a week in the life of my car. Bloomin’ car mats and soil scented air fresher are in the pre-alpha stage of development. I'll make sure to let you all know when they hit the market. Until then...


Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Lessons from Detroit: Growing Healthy Communities by Working with what We've Got

Alyssa Charney is a Service Member in Red Lodge.

As I furiously packed, attempted to reschedule three days of classes, and rushed away early from our annual Food Partnership Council celebration, I couldn’t help but be a bit frustrated that the midyear FoodCorps gathering in Detroit was pulling me away from a busy schedule of spring preparations and the last few months in a community that has very much become home.

But alas, I left Red Lodge at 4AM on Saturday and headed to Detroit.

Someone once told me that what’s happening in Detroit should be a model for the way rural communities can also rebuild themselves after significant population decline. Instead of trying to bring back all the people who left, Detroit is working with what it’s got, building off of opportunities that have come about from the challenges.

Detroit has lost half of its population within the past fifty years, and as a result, efforts across the city are focused on reviving and repurposing abandoned lots and neighborhoods through urban agriculture.  We visited and volunteered at D-Town Farm, Flint River Farm, Earth Works Urban Farm, or the Catherine Ferguson Academy for Young Women, learning from the innovators who are rebuilding Detroit, literally from the ground up.

Detroit’s approach of tapping into the resources that it already has can be a model for rebuilding rural and urban communities throughout the country. Our midyear gathering reminded me that as FoodCorps members spread out across the country, we, like Detroit, are also figuring out how to “work with what we’ve got.” We’re all in communities that are resilient in their own ways, and there is no single cookie cutter “FoodCorps approach” that can be applied at all sites.
Alyssa gives her Food Talk at the Detroit Mid-year gathering
which you can see here!

Hearing stories of bread making, native seeds, and young culinary rock stars from across the country reminded me that the true strength of FoodCorps is the adaptability and creativity of each service member, thriving within communities that are all so very unique. And FoodCorps staff are also tirelessly working to build a FoodCorps that works for each community - taking the time in Detroit to hear from us about how the program’s structure can be modified and improved based on our experiences.

And so as I made my way back home from Detroit, I felt lucky to be returning to a community that offers so much creativity and support to my work everyday, and also lucky to be part of a national network of service members, fellows, and FoodCorps staff who, like Detroit, are working to build healthy food systems with the resources that are uniquely available within each community.