Friday, January 24, 2014

Farm to School: Served Up Three Different Ways

Back when the yellow tamaracks and aspens gave Western Montana a shocking amount of fall color, FoodCorps members from around the state convened at the jubilant DIY get-together that is the annual conference for the Alternative Energy Resources Organization, or AERO. There, sometime between the pie contest and the square dance, Demetrius Fassas of Ennis, Jessica Manly of Kalispell, and I participated in a short panel on the various Farm to School efforts at our service sites.

Before that point, the Farm-to-School projects in my service had felt haphazard and unrelated. At various points throughout the fall, I found myself G-Chatting with Nicki Jimenez to figure out the packaging of local carrot coins, serving decidedly non-local grapefruit in classes at Bigfork, and driving down miles of a wooded back road to pick up buckets of carrots and beets from a generous local gardener. It felt more than a little bit scrappy. Preparing for the AERO panel, which emphasized the diversity among our three service site situations, allowed me to see these projects as a cohesive, localized farm-to-school effort at each of my three school districts--Somers/Lakeside, Bigfork, and Cayuse Prairie, which are all small town or rural schools in the Southern half of the Flathead Valley.

Somers is certainly ahead of the game; Robin Vogler, my supervisor and the Food Service Director there, has been recognized for her deft and progressive incorporation of local products into her menus. Robin has established a school garden and even a hydroponic greenhouse to supply her salad bar with lettuce through the winter. Being a relatively small school district, she has developed steady and fruitful relationships with small local growers, and she is astonishingly open to new ways of getting local food onto her students’ trays.

Bigfork School Districts, meanwhile, has just hired a dedicated new Food Service Director, Ginny Kirby, who promptly implemented a salad bar and plans to start purchasing local food over the next few months. At Bigfork, Ginny and I have worked together to make plans for buying local, but in the meantime, she has offered me sample amounts of non-local produce for taste tests in my classes. While I might prefer these fruits and veggies to be local, they are still healthy new products on her lunch line that kids need introducing to, so I see it as a first step. I trust that once Bigfork does start to purchase local foods, the kids will still recognize me as the food lady and be just as fanatical, if not even more eager, to taste honeycrisp apples grown on the shores of Flathead Lake as they are to taste raw zucchini from California. (Yes, many first graders begged me for thirds and fourths of raw zucchini slices. Who knew?)

            Cayuse Prairie is certainly the strangest of all my incarnations of Farm-to-School -- after all, they don’t even have a lunch service. But the principal helped me put out some “vegetable wanted” ads in their newsletter and on Facebook, and to my surprise, the vegetables started to appear (here was where I ended up driving down a back road for root vegetables). In fact, produce kept appearing reliably, if serendipitously, until the December holidays. So, in an improbable situation, the Cayuse Prairie community came together to feed the students super-local fruits and vegetables, re-acquainting them with sweet, fresh versions of familiar foods like carrots, apples, pears, and beefsteak tomatoes, as well as introducing them to some funkier new foods like purple potatoes, beets, spaghetti squash, and (of course) the hippest vegetable of them all, kale. Most of the time, a majority of the students had never tasted these novel veggies and fruits, and with a brief introduction to each food, the whole lunchroom would ceremoniously bite into our new vegetable at the same time. I knew something was working when a fourth-grader, somewhat crazed from his sublime encounter with kale chips, professed to me, “I will eat ANYTHING you bring. Anything.” I believe it.

So even in a rural school without school lunch service, students deserve and deeply appreciate local produce. Serving and eating local foods connects local gardeners to the school, makes eating food fun and interesting, and at least introduces kids to food that is healthy and can be grown in their valley. When a lunchroom full of middle schoolers said a collective “Cheers to Mike,” the farmer who grew our pears, it was impossible not to feel the connections we were making. It’s a start, anyway.

 In some cases, Farm-to-School unavoidably takes research, ingenuity, labor, and time; in others, it may just be the easiest thing in the world. But always, building relationships is at the heart of buying and eating local food. That is precisely what makes it such an important ongoing project, whatever stage your institution may be at, because if anything, all of us need better and stronger relationships in our lives. If that can come with a juicy wedge of pear or a sweet, foreign bite of butternut squash, well, all the tastier.

Written by Service Member Zoe Tucker, serving with Somers, Cayuse Prairie, and Bigfork School Districts in the Flathead Valley.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Two Bites of Confidence

"Hey! You are the teacher that helps us not to be afraid of trying new foods!"

            I hear these words from a sweet five year old girl, "Alice." She is proudly holding a piece of pear in her hand as I mill through the lunch room, encouraging students to try our new menu item, tabbouleh.

            Her statement alone warms my heart, but the fact that this specific girl said those words makes me feel like my nutrition education efforts in the classroom are beginning to make a difference. One of the main driving factors for leading a 6-week lesson series with the Kindergarteners, The Two Bite Club, was because of little "Alice." Teachers were concerned that she wasn't eating enough at lunch and that she seemed nervous or afraid of trying the foods offered at school. I didn't exactly blame her; the food service staff and I have been introducing some items to the lunch menu that perhaps are not average Montana fare, such as jicama, pitas, hummus, and lentil-accented sloppy joes.  I had an idea: why not try to make trying new foods fun, in a safe, friendly environment?

        Each week I visited the Kindergarten class and introduced a new food group from MyPlate while reading the story, The Two Bite Club. This provided a space for us to talk about how trying new foods can be scary; that some foods look weird, or silly, or maybe even not very tasty. But we were going on an adventure to try some new foods together, as a whole class! 

       I wanted our Kindergarten class to feel comfortable and to know that it is definitely okay if they don't like something after they try it. We were going to be explorers, investigating MyPlate each week to possibly discover a new food we liked! We sampled cheeses, popped our own popcorn, made a protein packed crazy monkey smoothie, created a veggie turkey out of strips of carrots, peppers, and cucumbers, and even got to cut up a pineapple! Each week we would take TWO little bites to see if it tasted okay to us, then decided if we liked it or not, and if we wanted more or not.

            On the final day of class we made our crazy monkey smoothie. I had all of the ingredients set up on a table for students to see and categorize into appropriate food groups; we had bananas, cocoa, milk, peanut butter, and honey. When we arrived on honey, we had the opportunity to talk about "sometimes foods" and "always foods" since honey does not necessarily fit into MyPlate. When I asked the Kindergarteners what the word "always" meant, I called on a girl who matter-of-factly replied, "Always is, you will always be my best friend forever." I'm pretty sure Kindergarteners are the best.
          My goal for this class series was not necessarily to make best friends, although that was a happy side effect. What I really wanted to accomplish was to introduce students to the food groups and to provide a positive, safe space to sample new foods. As a five year old, school is a whole new big, wide world. There are all these new and confusing things, such as learning what it means to "line up," remembering that scissors are for cutting paper (not bangs), discovering that chewing gum found under the play ground slide isn't really okay to put in your mouth, and on top of it all, there is a big lunch room where they are served some foods they may have never seen before in their short lives. These Two Bite Club classes were a fun opportunity for Kindergarten students to gain some confidence in the food realm and feel a sense of accomplishment and pride when they were able to decide if they liked or disliked a new food after trying it.

Taking two bites of a new food may seem like a small feat to some, but the sense of confidence that twinkles from a five year-old's eyes after he or she announces whether or not a food is to their preference is definitely a beautiful thing to witness.

Written by FoodCorps service member Camille McGoven serving in Boulder, Montana