Monday, March 31, 2014

Cooking up a Healthy School Food Legacy

Since January, the scent of freshly baked pumpkin bread wafting through the halls has become a weekly occurrence at Hyalite Elementary School. I often hear students and teachers wonder out loud: “What smells so good?” “Where is that smell coming from?” or “Who is baking bread?”

The mouth-watering aromas are the result of a new approach to a popular Hyalite tradition: the snack table.

A fundraiser and business project, the snack table was started by fifth grade teacher Danny Waldo as a way for the fifth grade class to raise money for a “Legacy Project” –a contribution to Hyalite that will outlive their time at the school. The students choose food items to sell at the table, determine prices and handle the money. And this year, for the very first time, the fifth graders are in charge of cooking and preparing the snacks as well. And they’re learning that healthier foods mean bigger profits, too!

Every week, students in the Cooking Club devote their lunch-recess to learning how to cook healthier, homemade foods to serve to their peers in place of the processed, sugar-filled snacks sold in years past. Working in small groups, they crack eggs, measure flour, mash bananas and blend chickpeas. As a FoodCorps service member, I support the students by organizing supplies and answering questions as needed, but the cooking is all student work. As they create food masterpieces from scratch, these students learn that making healthier choices in what they eat is fun. Or, as they often say, “I love to cook! I’m going to bring this recipe home to make with my mom!”

The Cooking Club members have learned to be food critics and adjust recipes for the less mature taste buds: “This hummus has too much tahini; let’s add more lemon juice.” Or, “The banana bread is too dry. I think we need to add more yogurt next time.” But the learning doesn’t end there. Over the course of just two months, I have witnessed improvements in teamwork and increased confidence with recipe reading, measuring and math, and leadership. And behind the table every Friday, these students who participate in creating the snacks are better salespeople. They now have a connection to what the food is and where it comes from, and they are able to share this information and excitement with their peers to increase sales. Just last week, I heard my student exclaim to his group of friends, “I made these pumpkin muffins yesterday! They are so good!”

Is it working? The numbers speak for themselves. During the 2012 - 13 school year, the weekly profit was $20-$25. This year, our weekly profits average $75-$80; just last week we made $77 selling homemade pumpkin bread, pita chips and hummus, peanut butter oatmeal bites, and 100% juice!

At first, many fifth graders did not understand the success. “But Mr. Waldo, can we sell maybe just two types of candy next week?” And Mr. Waldo and I would explain that resuming candy sales would be detrimental to their profits and to their ability to set a positive example for their peers. Many other students pleaded for us to bring back the candy and processed snacks of the past as well, and younger students in particular hesitated during the first few weeks after the unfamiliar, homemade goods appeared. But now, two and a half months later, students rush with excitement to purchase the “new foods” every Friday before they sell out.

These changes at Hyalite are taking place during a very important and exciting time regarding national school food regulations. Recently, the USDA published the Smart Snacks in Schools nutrition standards, a component of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010, as a guideline for what snacks can be marketed and sold to children at school. The standards aim to continue improving school food environments by promoting healthy options and limiting sales of junk food. These regulations, which impact school fundraisers like our snack table, will be enforced over the next few years. This puts Hyalite at the forefront of this transition.

My experience working with the fifth graders and the net profits of snack sales are evidence that healthy fundraisers can be successful. Sure, more time and effort goes into preparing foods like hummus and pumpkin muffins, but the pay-off is worth it: my students are learning valuable life-long skills that will help them on a pathway to a healthier lifestyle. Additionally, with the weekly nutrition lessons I teach, offering nutritious items enables us to send a consistent message to the students and allows them to practice making healthy choices in a safe environment. Just as USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack urged in a recent press release, through our Hyalite snack table we are helping to “make the healthy choice, the easy choice for America's young people.”

No matter what Legacy Project our fifth graders choose to fund this year with their snack table earnings, they will be leaving behind an even greater legacy at Hyalite: they will be remembered as the class who improved our school food culture by demonstrating that preparing and eating healthy foods is fun.

Written by FoodCorps service member Erin Jackson, engaging kids in hands-on, delicious real food education in Bozeman, MT.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Curious Cow Stomachs

I think curiosity should be a common learning standard, since so much of what I do as a FoodCorps service member is all about inspiring curiosity in kids.  In the school garden, I ask students to take five minutes at the beginning of each lesson to explore the garden and observe any changes they discover.  In the cafeteria, I encourage students to try kale salad by describing the taste and texture of kale and dried cranberries.  In the classroom, I challenge students to think about the raw, original materials that make up different objects in their everyday lives. 
“My clothes used to be a plant, right?” 
“My dad’s jacket is a cow skin!”
“Ice cream comes from cows!”
“My book is made from trees!”

Throughout the month of February, I use the fourth “Farmer In The Classroom” lesson, developed by Garden City Harvest, to teach second graders about cows and grass.  Students pretend to be the four chambers in a cow’s stomach and they get a healthy snack - a slice of Montzarella, a Lifeline Dairy local cheese.

I recently heard a speaker at a conference discuss the meaning of education as “drawing out talent” from students instead of “pushing things into” students’ minds.  Waded Cruzado, the president of Montana State University, spoke of the Latin root of education, educe, which means to “lead out.”  I wholeheartedly agree with this interpretation of education and I believe I strive for this type of learning in the classes I teach.  It is somewhat more difficult to draw out ideas and abilities in 2nd graders than in college students, but I believe that a student of any age can be encouraged to think differently about the world. 

So, in my lessons, I attempt to draw out curiosity and inquiry.  It is my style of teaching as well; some teachers tell me I just need to tell students that cow skin is turned into leather for clothing instead of spending five minutes collecting answers to the question, “What do cows provide humans?” I believe that when students are pushed to find answers within their own experience, they continue to inquire into and reflect upon their own experience even after the lesson is over.  I may be teaching 2nd graders about where we get milk, beef, manure, and leather but I also hope I am drawing out empathy for other beings and an understanding of the energy and work it takes to make these everyday things.  When I draw the life cycle of grass and cows on the whiteboard I hope I am also drawing out students’ connections to nature.  

I think it is important for second graders to know that bananas grow in very warm places, thousands of miles away from Montana.  I also think it is important that they can grow apples in their backyard.  But, my measure of a good lesson these days is whether it was able to inspire some curiosity in students. I believe that allowing students to hold a ziplock bag of cow manure and think about its potential to help grow more grass for cows to eat can lead to a love of learning and an openness to diverse perspectives of life. I value the moments when students can exercise their curiosity and think about the world in a different way.

Written by Pete Kerns, FoodCorps Service Member in Missoula! Pete partners with Missoula County Public Schools Food Service & Garden City Harvest to connect kids to real food and inspire curiosity through growing and cooking food.