Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The First School Garden Build (Adventures in Learning and Leadership)

How does an inexperienced gardener from New York City build a new school garden in Montana in three hours? No, this isn’t a riddle or the lead up to a punchline, it’s the question I asked myself with some trepidation earlier this spring, as I prepared to lead my first school garden build in Kalispell.

I worked for weeks to secure all the details for the build—raising grant money, coordinating delivery of lumber, topsoil, and mulch, recruiting volunteers, getting clearance from the school board, principal, and necessary municipalities, designing the beds—but on April 1st, the day of the build, I felt like I had earthworms in my stomach.

Before my service term with FoodCorps, I volunteered on a few organic farms and had done a bit of backyard weeding and windowsill herb growing. (I have also killed my fair share of house plants and seriously questioned the greenness of my thumb.) In all my experiences on farms and in gardens I was carefully supervised and instructed—plant this there, pull this weed, water here. My gardening knowledge was also primarily gained in northern California and central Virginia, warm climes with lush, unhurried growing seasons and fertile, forgiving soil.

Now, I was charged with transforming a patch of sod in the front yard of the historic Cornelius Hedges elementary school into a fully functional school garden. On the morning of the build, I stood in the midst of 30 volunteers, all looking to me for instruction. Did they know this was my first time building a garden and my first year navigating Montana’s 90 day (if you’re lucky) growing season? Could everyone tell how nervous I was? 

Despite my nerves, I laid out our garden plan, helped measure the plots, directed wheelbarrows, and answered any question needing answering as best I could.

I quickly realized that though I was technically “in charge,” the garden was a project that belonged to the entire community. I wasn’t even the conductor, as much as an admiring audience member, while all the volunteers seamlessly performed their roles.

Natalie Miller, the enthusiastic principal at Hedges, was instrumental in getting the project green-lighted with the school community and grounds manager, and in her general support of the project. Meredith Whitney and Montana Conservation Corps crew members pulled up in a caravan of white Suburbans with brightly colored wheelbarrows strapped to the roof and all the tools, construction knowledge, and enthusiasm we needed to fashion our bed frames. Jeremy Reed, a super helpful PTO member and Hedges parent volunteered his time, truck, and expertise, and church members, community volunteers, Center for Restorative Youth Justice participants, students, parents, and friends all pitched in their skills and best effort.

There were a few unexpected hiccups, of course. The woodchips and topsoil were wet and clung to the raised delivery beds (we climbed up and shoveled it all down-see picture), I hadn’t thought out where to put the sod we pulled up (a neighbor walked by and claimed it), and we ran out of snacks more quickly than anticipated.

But three hours later, Hedges had six brand-new raised beds. A few weeks later, there stands a fenced in outdoor classroom with radishes, sweet peas, kale, and carrot seeds slowly growing in the rich soil, all planted by children and teachers.

Luckily, school gardens are not about perfection, nor solitude and self-reliance.  The beauty of a school garden is the hundreds of helping hands you are supplied with from day one—the congregation of students, teachers, and parents—all working for the shared goal of connecting the school community to the source of their food.

I find that the challenge, and the real fun, of my work as a FoodCorps member is the diversity and breadth of the projects that I am privileged to work on in my district. Each service member does a bit of everything—we teach nutrition, lead field trips and summer camps, serve lunch, explore the science of compost, write grants, network with school administrators, dig in the dirt, and cook with kids and teachers in the kitchen. Our past roles vary from professional chef, to political activist, licensed educator, and clinical nutritionist, to professional farmer and engineer.

We have unique and varied skills and comfort zones, and not one of us has mastered every facet of all the three pillars of FoodCorps service. Instead, we use our particular skillset to connect and educate our students every school day, and we can turn to our amazing network of service members, fellows, supervisors, and shared resources to find help when needed.

My service year has been as filled with my own education as it has been with teaching. I have learned how to manage a classroom of kindergartners, develop a healthy recipe that will please the palate of a picky eight-year-old, and I am learning how to grow in soil I had never stepped foot on before this September. I also re-learned what a cotyledon is, knowledge I had lost some time after ninth grade…

The Hedges school garden stands as the result of tremendous community effort and support, and I hope that it will continue into future years under the care and creativity of students and teachers long after I serve in Kalispell.

So how does an inexperienced gardener from New York City build a new school garden in Montana in three hours? The answer, I found, is you don’t do anything alone. Ask a lot of questions, know who to call for help, and with a little luck (and a little chutzpah) your garden will seem to build itself.

This piece was written by Jessica Manly, the FoodCorps member serving in Kalispell, MT. She's excited to share photos and updates with us when students and teachers start growing delicious veggies at the Hedges School Garden this summer and next school year!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

When I Grow Up...

When I was in elementary school, my dream jobs oscillated seamlessly and indiscriminately between fiction and reality. One day, being a professional mermaid was the obvious answer, because being able to breathe under water and swim like a fish were definitely admirable skills. Other days, I was an explorer, an astronaut, or a teacher. Or I was everything all at once- and that was the best.

Today, I have a clearer vision of what I want to do when I grow up (even though some days being a mermaid still seems pretty awesome) because I'm doing it. Luckily, some of my childhood dreams are woven into my FoodCorps service, from feeling like an explorer, discovering my path and place in the Farm to School movement, to stepping in as a teacher and bringing students on a farm adventure for hands-on Montana agricultural education.

So, when I was in the dusty Glory Farm goat barn with a group of squirrely third grade students and overheard a "When I grow up..." conversation my ears perked up:

"When I grow up I'm going to be a goat farmer!"

"Well, when I grow up I'm going to be a farmer right here on this farm!"

"Well, I'm gonna be a goat farmer on this farm too!"

These two third grade girls were discussing their future farming careers after Gay Eyman, vegetable grower, chicken and goat raiser, and farmer extraordinaire of Glory Farm in Helena, MT taught them how to milk her sweet goat, Cinnamon.

A far cry from the clean, structured class time that these ladies are used to, the farm is a beautiful, refreshing mess of chickens happily sprinting around their run, curious goats snuffling third grade fingers, and the distinct, wonderful fragrance of garden soil in the spring. And if you've ever met a guinea hen, you'll understand the students' glee at watching this expressive animal act as a watch dog over the other chickens!

During the month of April, students in Kindergarten through third grade excitedly trekked forty minutes to spend an afternoon at Glory Farm.  Here they had the opportunity to plant their own pumpkin to take back to the school greenhouse, visit the chickens and chicks, and meet (and if they were brave enough milk) the friendly goats.  

Prior to the farm field trip, Farmer Eyman, along with her two interns, came to each classroom to talk to the students about what farming is like, and taught them about different plants she grows and animals she raises. Having the farmer visit prior to our field trip proved to be a great idea, not only to give students an introduction to her farm, but to illustrate to them that farmers are not the same! Most notably, a first grade student announced to his class that he "Didn't know there could be LADY farmers!!" Good thing Farmer Eyman was there to correct his misperception!

I had wanted to take students to a local farm since I began my service in August 2012, but things hadn't fallen into place until this spring, after Farmer Eyman and I had connected about our passions for giving children hands-on educational food and farming experiences.  My original goal for the field trip had been to give students a firsthand experience with farming, connecting the dots between what we talk about in class and what it looks like in real life. Then, by taking a little piece of the farm with them, in the form of both pumpkin seeds and those intangible memories, students could feel empowered to continue their learning experience back at home and in the classroom.  

What I hadn't anticipated was that I was planting the seeds for future dream jobs as well.  Perhaps this farm field trip was more than just an educational experience; maybe I opened new doors of possibility and hopefully inspired students to realize that farming is not only something they can do when they grow up, but a passion they can participate in today. Farming, ranching, gardening- these are more than dream jobs, they are real jobs that need more "When I grow up..." support.  

So many children are far removed from the soil, the animals and the plants that nourish their bodies. By letting students explore and participate in the food system, we are allowing them to form knowledgeable opinions and ask smart, critical questions about today's food and agricultural system. And, maybe, we will even support the dreams of the future goat farmers out there, too!

This post was written by Camille McGoven, a second year FoodCorps member in Boulder, Montana, who is living her dream job.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Reasons to Love a Small Town

In a town the size of Red Lodge, it’s easy to feel like you know everyone. I’ve often connected with other service members in small towns about the difficulty of getting anywhere on time because inevitably you will stop to talk to someone along the way. Despite the delays sometimes, I love running into parents; hearing about their kids’ stories from class, or how they enjoyed the write up I did in the Friday Folders. This morning I ran into a woman in my knitting group. She’s the mother of a kindergartener I will be teaching later this afternoon, and I made sure to invite her to the local beef lunch we would be having that Friday in the cafeteria.

My service sends me all over town: the elementary school, Community Foundation, Children's Center, Boys and Girls Club, to name a few. The classes I teach in the elementary school have become the cornerstone of my service. I enjoy working with the same students each week. I can count on them to be enthusiastic, and they're always excited to see me. Of course it's not always that easy. 

Some days your normally angelic group of second graders runs amuck in the kitchen while you’re trying to engineer the perfect homemade ranch dressing. It’s discouraging, but by the end of the lesson, when all I see are smiles and fingers dripping with ranch, I have a hard time feeling like the hour was wasted. I can only cover so much in one class, especially when so much energy is applied towards controlling the chaos. It’s the out of school connections that reassure me that my service is making an impact.

One of those same second graders came to my cooking class at the Boys & Girls Club later that week. She would be there to witness the start of two weeks of non stop jicama. A casual meeting with our food service director had led to a string of classes introducing this new vegetable in preparation for a cafeteria taste test later in the month. The next week jicama showed up in the fridge at the Boys and Girls Club, a delivery with that weeks Bountiful Baskets share. I helped my cooking club crew prepare jicama for the other club members to sample. I mentioned to one boy that we would be tasting this in class the next week. When I showed up to class, FoodCorps bag in hand, he was even more excited than usual. For me, the best part isn’t the excitement around jicama, but the connections bought to light in the process. I introduce something in school, then students are even more excited when they see it at Club, and visa versa.

The Boys and Girls Club wasn’t the only one to get jicama in their basket that week. In my third grade class the teacher told me his family had been eating it all week. The more I get to know the community of Red Lodge, the more I see the importance of my work. Ideas spread, and even small experiences have impact. Mr. Sager, the third grade teacher, snagged the homemade ranch recipe after class telling me that “first you got me with the hummus, now this is next.” I smile, knowing that his daughters have already tried it in class last week.

Extending my service beyond the classroom has brought a new depth to the work I do in school. The kids I work with more closely at the Club become leaders in the classroom. I get to connect with students that I normally wouldn’t see in school. I work with siblings. The fourth grader helps the kindergartener make a salad dressing. That same kindergartener comes back the next week and cradles the jicama saying “my yum yums,” reminding me of how she ate eight pieces of it in school. All the small moments do add up.

One of the most rewarding perks of serving in my small town of Red Lodge is strengthening the connections in this local network. The scope of my service allows me to more clearly see the impact of working with the same kids week after week. I may only reach a small number of students, and even smaller number I see regularly, but with those students I feel that I have been able to achieve an even more meaningful connection. Those kids are my vegetable cheerleaders.

This post was penned by Emily Howe, the FoodCorps member in Red Lodge, MT (a lovely small town with a commitment to local, healthy foods).