Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Fight to End Childhood Hunger in Montana

Katie Wheeler, FoodCorps Service Member -- Kalispell.

Since beginning my FoodCorps service term two years ago, one of my biggest priorities has been working to make the Flathead Valley a more food secure community by increasing the amount of healthy food that is accessible to children.  (Bonus points when the healthy food is local!). 

 1 in 5 children across the state and 2 in 5 in the Flathead struggle with hunger.  The No Kid Hungry campaign puts it simply, “That child who doesn’t have enough to eat isn’t going to do as well in school, and is likely to get sick more often.  She’s less likely to graduate from high school and go on to college, which will have a negative impact on her economic future.  If this happens, then twenty years from now, she’s much less likely to be able to earn enough to feed her family.”

During a FoodCorps Montana training in February 2012, I had a conversation with Katie Bark, the Project Director of Montana Team Nutrition Program out of Bozeman.  I expressed my interested in food security issues, which prompted Katie to invite me to attend a Montana Partnership to End Childhood Hunger (MT-PECH) committee meeting in Helena. 

This meeting also happened to coincide with the launch of the No Kid Hungry campaign in Montana through a partnership with the former Governor Brian Schweitzer, the Department of Public Health and Human Services, and Share Our Strength.  This launch and the meeting that followed opened up my service to a whole new set of information, support, and guidance in the fight to end childhood hunger.

I am so grateful for the opportunity to join the MT-PECH committee, and couldn’t be more proud to represent Kalispell Public Schools and FoodCorps.  At that first meeting, I was introduced to a document we are working on entitled “10 Steps to End Childhood Hunger in Montana.”  Each step has goals, a 2010 baseline, and a 2013 benchmark, as well as a 2015 benchmark.  The document really helps me to see how closely FoodCorps service is connected to food security work.  Facets of many FoodCorps members' service are included among some of the steps, for instance:

Step 1: Provide a nutrient-rich breakfast for all school children
Step 3: Expand the reach of the Summer Food Service Program
Step 5:  Guarantee that all eligible families have access to public food programs (such as the National School Lunch Program and the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program)
Step 6:  Increase access for families to healthy, affordable, locally grown food
Step 9:  Offer nutrition education to children and families on making smart food choices and active lifestyles

                                             Step                                Goals                            2010 Baseline           2013 Benchmark      2015 Benchmark

But the big news is that for the past year we have been planning the Build a Stronger Montana: End Childhood Hunger statewide summit, taking place September 23rd-24th at Montana State University.  A primary goal of the summit is to showcase best practices in communities across Montana that address child hunger.  We will do this through hosting a variety of speakers from across the state, providing opportunities to network, and facilitating discussions to give individuals and groups the resources they need to take action in their communities.

We also have quite the list of special guests and presenters!  For example, Governor Steve Bullock will provide the opening message and Montana’s First Lady, Lisa Bullock, will speak to raise awareness about hunger in Montana and provide a great understanding of the serious implications the issue has on health and our economy.  And thanks to a connection provided by FoodCorps’ wonderful Communications Director, Jerusha Klemperer, our keynote speaker is Lori Silverbush, co-director of the documentary A Place at the Table!

On the evening of September 23rd, MT-PECH is co-sponsoring a screening of the film with the Bozeman Community Food Co-op and the Bozeman Film Festival!  The screening will take place at the Emerson’s Crawford Theater at 7pm.  Following the film, Lori Silverbush and husband Tom Colicchio, producer of the film, chef/owner of Craft Restaurants, and and Emmy-nominated “Top Chef” judge, will participate in a panel discussion.

Please join us in the fight to end childhood hunger in Montana!  Extend this invitation to your staff, colleagues, family, friends, and networks because together we can build a stronger Montana.

Visit to register and for more information.  Early Bird registration is available until August 14th!

Post Script: The passion to end childhood hunger runs in the family. My brother, Andrew, shot this PSA for No Kid Hungry last Thanksgiving: 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

FoodCorps Montana Grows Healthy Kids and Communities

Lea Howe is the FoodCorps Fellow in Montana.

School’s out for summer, but FoodCorps AmeriCorps Members are busier than ever, helping to grow healthy kids and communities across Montana.

Camille McGoven dishes up local beef and school garden
greens for the Boulder Summer Feeding Program.
At summer farm camp in Red Lodge, kids are--literally--singing the praises of beets. In Kalispell and Ronan, FoodCorps makes sure that summer doesn’t result in kids going hungry, supporting summer feeding programs with supplies of healthy, local food. In Missoula, nearly 300 community members recently enjoyed a school lunch, (for dinner!) through a fundraiser called Try the Tray. In Bozeman, Boulder and Billings, vibrant summer programs ensure that even while on break, students can still enjoy the peak of school garden bounty.

Altogether, since August 2012, Montana’s 10 service members have led hands-on gardening and nutrition education activities with 7,681 children. They’ve harvested over 2,312 pounds of produce for school and summer program meals, and incorporated 15,593 pounds of healthy, local foods into school lunch programs.
Students in Ennis prepare a tasty salad snack from
their school garden.

The students are loving it. During a smoothie lesson at Lowell Elementary in Missoula, one young student exclaimed, “If this class were a video game, this would be a bonus level!”

In September, we’ll welcome a new FoodCorps team to start another school year, and, just like the kids, we’ll be back in the classrooms, making every day--and every meal--an opportunity for eating healthy food and supporting Montana’s agriculture. Bonus level, indeed.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Hail or Shine, Glendive will have a Garden!

Anne McHale is a service member in Glendive.

Summer in Eastern Montana is full of long, lazy days spent trying to beat the heat and, if you were in Glendive this week, dodging the hail storm that took out many of our gardens. I’m still trying to figure out why my garden at the Prairie Development Center was leveled while gardens just a couple miles west got nothing more than a good soak. Montana’s microclimates never cease to baffle me!

A sad looking tomato plant.

Luckily, my garden had just fulfilled its primary role for the summer by providing greens to about 40 kids who came by for their summer reading program through the library. The theme this year is “DIG INTO READING.” As you can imagine, I didn’t have to twist any arms to schedule myself into this particular program.

In Glendive, many of the kids spend their summers taking care of younger siblings, or being taken care of by older siblings. Many are out on their bikes around town, waiting for the pool to open or baseball practice to get underway. Sometimes these biker crews make it all the way out to Makoshika, the badlands state park that boarders Glendive.

As far as I can tell, Makoshika State Park, the library, the city recreation department and the Boys & Girls Club account for nearly all school-age activities during the summer. As a FoodCorps member, I go where the kids go and, thus, have partnered with all these groups over the years. Fortunately, they are always game for new programming and, of course, delicious snacks!

The Boys & Girls Club, in particular, is my home base this summer largely because it’s where we built a garden last year. This year we’ve planted some exotic plants and even some mystery seeds. I had a memorable line from a kiddo this spring who was helping me pot starts. He couldn’t remember what kind of seed was in his pot. When I urged him to describe any characteristic that would help identify it he said, “It was a LITTLE seed!”

Luckily gardening with kids isn’t rocket science and if things go well, they’ll have lots of fun and learn a lot. Likewise, if things go badly they’ll still have fun and learn!

Garden Wildlife!

Tragically, the Boys and Girls Club did not escape the hail. That said, we’ve got it pretty well cleaned up and I’m mentally preparing to replant. It’s important that the kids not see any sign of defeat in the recent destruction of our garden plants during the last few weeks of my service term. I hope my behavior and attitude will model resilience and perseverance. In the garden as in life, when you get hailed on there’s nothing to do but refocus and replant.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Rootedness and Moving Forward

Alyssa Charney is a Service Member in Red Lodge.

Next month I will bid farewell to Red Lodge, Montana, where I have served as a FoodCorps member for the past two years. As I prepare to leave this community that I’ve come to call home, I’ve been thinking a lot about the significance of our connection to the land in creating a sense of place.

Red Lodge campers cool down while learning about
irrigation on the Espenscheid Farm.
I have worked to foster a strong sense of place for my students in Red Lodge by connecting them to the land, the environment, and good food. I hope that I have strengthened their rootedness.

Last month I had the opportunity to really observe how kids’ connections to the land can shift as they have more direct participation in growing their own food. The Red Lodge Area Food Partnership Council held its first ever Farm & Garden Camp, and seventeen Red Lodge kids joined us to garden, cook, and learn about local agriculture.

One afternoon, as farmer Dick Espenscheid told us how many tons of manure he needs to spread over his hundreds of acres, one of the campers turned to me and said, “We would need way less manure for our garden!” She didn’t say your garden. Or the school’s garden.  Or the Red Lodge garden. Instead, she was ready to claim the garden as her own.

Kale smoothie time!

These shifts in attitude are as subtle as the garden’s growth from one day to the next, but it struck me how important it is to create a space where kids feel connected to the land.

And at the same time that I hear them change their pronouns about the land that sustains us from “yours” or ”theirs” to “ours,” I am trying to figure out how to transition from “we” to “you” when I speak about future plans and projects in Red Lodge. I am trying to figure out how to leave behind the place that has welcomed, supported, and rooted me so well.

In thinking about my rootedness in Red Lodge, I keep coming back to a favorite poem of mine by Patricia Midge Farmer:

Marguerite Jodry give campers the real dirt on farming


If I had not come to these high plains,
my heart would have missed
the beat of the love of place,
my guts would have yearned for some unknown fulfillment,
my mind would have shrunk to a small, civilized size,
and my soul would have tentacles,
searching, always reaching out
for what I have found here.

But I am now like the tenacious sage
wide roots forced into
this seldom yielding ground
to make a place for me
to hold on tight
to nurture and be nourished
and oh, this land does feed me.

I feel lucky to have been transplanted into the Red Lodge community for the past two years.  My roots are held in place by the connections with curious students, open hearts, and healthy land. I know that this experience will continue to nourish and drive me forward as I embark on my next adventure.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

It Just Takes a Spark

Nicki Jimenez is a Service Member in Ronan. 

I walked into the kitchen at Polson’s Cherry Valley Elementary School on June 12th fully expecting just to say a cheerful “hey!” to the wonderful food service staff and chat about how their summer food program was going. I was barely even planning to bring up local sourcing. But after exchanging greetings, JB dove right in, asking me “so what have you got right now?”

Timeless Organic Petite Crimson Lentils!
Image Source:

I was floored—and excited! Here was someone who wanted to do local sourcing and all I had to do was show up. My presence got the juices flowing, aided tremendously by all the work last year’s Service Member Lindsay Howard did to bring JB and her summer program on board with local sourcing. I wasn’t prepared to talk specifics on that day, but over the next couple of weeks, JB and I developed processes and added local products to the menu. This summer, JB will be mixing organic Montana lentils into her ground beef using a 50-pound bag of Petite Crimson lentils donated by Timeless Seeds and my Lentil Cooking Guide. She’ll be serving local produce—starting with lettuce and tarragon for a homemade salad dressing—enabled by the Western Montana Growers Cooperative which is adding Polson to their regular call list and delivering right to the school. I’m looking forward to encouraging Polson to transition these local sourcing practices into the regular school year.

This is one example of an important lesson I’ve been learning this year: making change in a community often starts with just a spark—a simple personal connection by email, phone, or visit. I never know when I’m going to be the spark until I try and see if it catches.
Fourth graders point out features of a map of local food
on the Flathead Reservation.
As a FoodCorps Service Member being tasked with making change in my community, the common perception might be that I’m the spark igniter. In fact,  it is often the community that sparks me into action! One day in April I received an email from Andrew, an NRCS Soil Conservationist and small farmer in the Mission Valley, asking me if I wanted to have a station at Lake County Conservation District’s 4th Grader Ag Days. I hadn’t heard of this event, but I was beyond thrilled at the opportunity to reach so many students with an activity on local food.

In only 10-15 minutes with each group of fourth graders, FoodCorps Service Member Katie Wheeler and I led the students through a whirlwind introduction to local food and why it’s important.  The kids learned that most of the Flathead Reservation’s agricultural products are consumed somewhere else, that farmers grow food that’s consumed locally on diversified farms, that these farmers sell their food at farmers markets and through Western Montana Growers Cooperative, and that kids get to eat food directly from farmers when they buy from the farmers market and at school when lunch or snack is sourced from the co-op. We discussed why eating local food is important, demonstrating how local food keeps money locally, food fresher and healthier, and the environment cleaner.

The activity used two interactive Velcro boards where the
students imagined their own diversified farm and
mapped the Flathead Reservation's local food system.
At Fourth Grader Ag Days Katie and I taught 300 kids foundational concepts about local food. I witnessed kids (and the accompanying adults) reacting with surprise to facts like how far food travels to the store (1,500 miles), or how much of every dollar farmers get when we buy food at the store (15 cents), or even how we don’t know if the beef we buy from the store is one of the many cows raised in our valley. Fourth Grader Ag Days was one of the most meaningful experiences of my service and it all happened because I got the spark.

Sparks transform latent interest and preliminary ideas into action. They light the fires which make change in a community and spread embers that may be rekindled sometime in the near or distant future. Now that I realize it just takes a spark, I’ll give and receive them even more freely to make things happen in my community.