Monday, June 23, 2014

Digging Into Healthy Habits in School Gardens

FoodCorps service member Erin Jackson was recently asked to speak on Montana Public Radio for the Alternative Energy Resources Organization (AERO) to share her experience as a school garden educator and her ability to connect kids to real food through hands-on gardening activities. 

AERO is a grassroots membership organization serving as Montana’s hub for sustainable communities: inspiring change, connecting local leaders, and building capacity for success across the state for 40 years. If you'd like to get involved, check them out at

Erin's talk, which aired on MTPR on June 19, 2014, is called "Schools Can Build Real Relationships with Real Food" and the transcript is here below:

How many times have you heard a parent say, “I can’t get my kids to eat vegetables!” While this is, unfortunately, sometimes true, over the last two years as a FoodCorps service member at Hyalite Elementary School in Bozeman, I’ve heard AND experienced the exact opposite. Just last week, I had to ask a kindergartner to STOP eating spinach. He was picking it from the school gardens and shoving it into his mouth so fast that I feared he would strip every plant of its leaves, leaving none for others to try. What a quandary—having to ask a child to stop eating his vegetables!

Every day, I have the privilege of helping youth form enduring relationships with real food – through lessons in the school gardens, cooking classes, field trips to local farms, or taste-tests paired with nutrition education. I’ve come to believe that connecting kids to where their food comes from, in a hands-on, engaging outdoor environment, can be a key to creating healthy, sustainable communities. When a kindergartner plants the spinach seed, waters it, watches it sprout and grow, and finally, harvests it straight from the ground, he or she has a personal connection to the leafy green and is therefore more likely to try it – and even devour it – as I have witnessed many times.

Watching kids shove this calcium- and vitamin-rich super-food into their mouths, then ask for seconds or thirds, has convinced me of the power of school gardens to foster lifelong healthy eating habits. The students say it best: “You just made me love spinach! I used to hate it, but this is the BEST spinach I’ve ever had!”

And it’s not just spinach. One parent asked me, “Are you the one planting with the students? My son wouldn’t TOUCH vegetables and now he’s raving about radishes!” After the students made a salad using kale from the gardens, another parent told me that her son wouldn’t eat anything green before this but now he likes kale so much that he wants it every day! 

Our hands-on approach to growing, preparing, and tasting vegetables has translated to the school lunch program as well. Teachers report that their students choose a wider variety of fruits and vegetables and are more willing to try unfamiliar foods than they were a year ago. Given the chance, kids can be much more adventurous tasters than we give them credit for!

In addition to encouraging kids to embrace fruits and vegetables, our school gardens help foster an understanding and appreciation of the natural world. Sitting beneath the towering sunflowers in this outdoor classroom, we feel the rough potato leaves and the smooth flower petals, listen to bees pollinating our flowers, hunt for bugs with magnifying glasses, smell mint, sage, and thyme, and taste crisp, spicy rainbow radishes. Learning is brought to life as every sense is engaged.

Caring for plants in the school garden also instills the principles of environmental stewardship. It’s delightful to watch as third graders take ownership of their cabbage plants by naming them, checking on them at every recess, and proudly showing them to their parents. These cabbages were part of a math lesson in which students measured their plant’s height and diameter every week—just one example of garden integration with the Common Core Curriculum Standards.

Here in Montana, a challenge with our garden program is that the school year doesn’t overlap with the main growing season. In an effort to continue garden learning over the summer, I teach a Junior Master Gardener program for third through fifth graders. Following a farm to school theme, the students learn basic gardening skills and how to harvest and prepare meals with the fresh produce. We also visit local farms and help harvest the Gallatin Valley Food Bank’s gardens, which make it possible for everyone in the community to enjoy fresh food. Besides being fun and useful, the Junior Master Gardener program undoubtedly lessens what teachers call “summer learning loss” – the students stay engaged in the science of the growing cycle, practice their math skills while converting recipes, and improve their writing by keeping a garden journal.

And next month, we’ll be building a greenhouse at Hyalite Elementary to extend learning opportunities into the school year. This project is a collaboration between our 4th and 5th grade Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM, club and many local organizations. Plans are underway to use the greenhouse to continue to integrate lessons with our state and national core curriculum standards.

My time with FoodCorps at Hyalite Elementary has reinforced my belief in the value of outdoor, experiential learning. If it were up to me, every school in Montana--and across the country--would have a program like this!

Friday, June 13, 2014

It’s a bird, It’s a plane, It’s a …. Lentil?

Lentils are the new superheroes at West Elementary School in Butte Montana. Throughout the month of May students got to learn about lentils, our May “Harvest of the Month” item. In December, the Butte School District started serving one local item each month for our new Harvest of the Month program. It has been a great way to teach food and nutrition to kids one item at a time and to get kids really excited about trying new fruits, vegetables, whole grains and proteins. Starting a program like this one is also a great way for schools to begin buying local foods to prepare and serve for lunch. I have learned a lot from piloting our program this year, especially during this last lentil month.

As part of my FoodCorps service I am working with the Butte Director of Central Services, Mark Harrison. He runs the entire school food program, which is a huge job I’ve realized. We started Harvest of the Month in December as a way to commit to buying local food throughout the year, and so far Mark has purchased local butternut squash, apples, potatoes, whole grain rolls, beef, and lentils.

I have taught classes about these items and done some cafeteria events in order to get students interested and excited to try these new foods on the lunch menu. I myself am learning about these food items as I prepare lessons for the students. Did you know that grains come from the seed part of grass plants and that whole grains use the entire seed? To teach this concept to the students, a parent and I brought wheat shafts, wheat berries, whole wheat flour and dough into the cafeteria and showed the kids how whole grain bread is made.

I realized after the whole grain roll cafeteria event that most students, parents, and teachers had no idea that the Butte Pubic School District was serving local food. My lonely posters in the cafeterias just weren’t enough to spread the word. Being a new program, it seemed like we were scrambling to decide on and purchase our local item last minute, leaving little time to teach classes about it. So in March our Farm to School Committee decided to focus on creating educational activities and promotion for May’s Harvest of the Month as a sort of test run at West Elementary School.

One of our committee members suggested that students guess the number of lentils in a jar to win a prize. I counted out around 17,600 lentils and put them in a small mason jar (ok, I counted 800 in a Tablespoon and estimated from there). Throughout May, the school librarian had the students guess the number in the jar. This competition got students excited to try this new mystery food! I also did a lesson with all of the 2nd grade classes. We sang “The Lentil Song” and talked about all the activities we do with our bodies that require protein. To familiarize students with the variety of lentils that are grown in Montana, we also looked at six different kinds of lentils and matched the lentils with their names, like Black Beluga and Petit Crimson.

The day before my class with the 2nd graders, I happened to read an article about the “Farm to Table” movement, which argued that in order for the movement to truly support local, sustainable agriculture we need to support not just the popular crops like tomatoes, but also the crops that help improve soil health, like nitrogen-fixing legumes. This article inspired me to include the benefits of legumes in my lesson, and at first I was stumped at how to teach 2nd graders about nitrogen fixing but then decided to have the students act out a skit. The parts included nitrogen in the air, nitrogen in the soil, tomato and carrot plants, and lentils. The lentils helped capture the nitrogen in the air and brought it down to the soil to help the tomato and carrot plants grow, giving the lentils their superhero status! The students loved the play and they were asking when the cafeteria would be serving these superhero lentils that helped them grow strong and helped the soil.

 The students were thrilled to finally get to try the lentils last Tuesday. We did a taste test with the Kindergarten, first and second grades. The results from the taste test were mixed, with about half of the Kindergarteners and first graders liking the lentils and more than half of the second graders liked the lentils. I have learned a lot from our six months of working to source and serve local food in the public school system. I have learned about the importance of planning ahead and communicating clearly with producers and food service staff, which gives us time to expand the education around the items we are serving. We have already set out our Harvest of the Month schedule for next year starting with summer squash in September!

I also have learned that I can’t make Harvest of the Month a reality all on my own and need to enlist the help of enthusiastic parents, teachers, principals and community members to educate students and spread the word.

The most important lesson I’ve learned lately, though, is that when I can turn a fruit, vegetable, grain or protein into a “superhero,” it greatly increases the chance of kids trying it in the cafeteria!

This post was written by Andi Giddings, the FoodCorps service member in Butte, America. Andi will be serving with FoodCorps Montana for another year, and we are so exited to see the Harvest of the Month program develop in Butte Public Schools!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Farm to Knife

On a Thursday morning in early May, I informed the principal of Bigfork School, Matt Jensen, that two local sushi chefs were coming in to teach knife skills to seventh and eighth graders. Mr. Jensen was a little taken aback, but he rolled with it and requested only that I not let any of the kids lose any fingers. I had been leading bimonthly healthy cooking projects for Mary Ahnert’s health classes throughout the year, and this would be the first time we would use an entire session to focus on knife skills. Tiffany Newman and Drake Doepke, the co-owners of a popular Bigfork sushi restaurant called Sake To Me, had generously offered to visit Mrs. Ahnert’s classes to share their precise cutting techniques with the students.

The former Home Economics room in Bigfork Middle School has four kitchens and throughout the year I’ve led cooking projects that can be assembled from four components so that every kitchen has a distinct job. Our health classes have assembled a salad bar with beets, pickled red onions, and two kinds of homemade dressings; we’ve whipped up healthy squash hummus and red pepper dips with homemade pita chips; we’ve made whole-wheat pretzels, tacos, and vegetable stir-fries; and we’ve capped off the trimesters with a pizza day (to the occasional dismay of the students, we don’t just mean cheese and pepperoni. See a sample recipe below). This time, we were experimenting with healthy spring rolls, which are raw bundles of vegetables, tofu or seafood, herbs and even fruits rolled in a rice or tapioca flour wrapper.

Prior to this Thursday, Tiffany, who also has a certificate in Holistic Nutrition, had planned and taught this rainbow spring roll lesson with me for elementary classes grades 1-4. To begin each class, Tiffany and I would give an introductory explanation on “eating the rainbow,” explaining that colors in fruits and vegetables often correspond to a variety of nutrients. We then let the students pick from a buffet of fruits and veggies from all the colors of the rainbow, taught them how to soak their rice wrappers, assemble their filling, and roll it all together. Students crunched into their gorgeous, rainbow-colored spring rolls, and they loved them (even though the texture of the sticky rice wrappers was foreign to most of the kids). With the middle school cooking classes, Tiffany figured, we could take it a step further and teach the students how to do the prep work for the spring roll fillings themselves. 

So on this Thursday, Drake accompanied Tiffany with his portable set of sushi knives, and they both went to work in the classroom. They began by emphasizing safety and demonstrated “the claw” or a safe way to grip the vegetable with your non-cutting hand. They then taught the students three basic cuts: the julienne, for carrots and peppers; the shave, for scallions and cabbage; and the mince, for cilantro. And then we cut! Drake and Tiffany watched every single student carefully, correcting form and mostly managing to avoid injury. Piles of slender, julienned peppers and carrots accumulated as the kids practiced their knife control until--with no lost fingers--the seventh and eighth graders had prepped neat piles of vegetables for our spring rolls, learning control and care in the process.
From the beginning of the year, Mrs. Ahnert and I had agreed that we wanted to empower the students with basic prepping skills in the kitchen--peeling garlic, trimming onions, and other ways that we make fruits and vegetables available and enjoyable for us to eat.  Though this was our first lesson totally devoted to knife skills, all of our cooking projects involved a variety of vegetables, and so some type of prep was constantly being learned. We would often notice a seventh grader attempting to dice an onion with its papery skin still on and realize that we should probably intervene. Dish by dish, we showed them basic tricks of the kitchen that I myself only learned when living and cooking in a co-operative house in college. So even if they don’t go home and start julienning kohlrabi for their families immediately, Mrs. Ahnert and I hope that these skills will stick with the students in some way as they grow up.

At the end of trimesters or special visits to classes, I often receive very sweet, if mandatory, thank-you notes. One message from a fifth grader that stuck with me read, “Thank you for letting us use knives in class,” adding, “I didn’t think you’d trust us.” It had not been an intention of mine to teach or emphasize knives in that class, but still it stuck with at least one ten-year-old girl as the most notable part of the session. That note and watching the middle schoolers improve at cutting has made me realize that beyond just being a part of eating healthy foods, teaching knife skills can also be an act of trust and respect, as important as trusting kids to try growing their own food in gardens. 

Mrs. Ahnert added a question to the end of her last health quiz this trimester: “Have you developed any healthy habits this year? Yes / No. If so, what?” Out of her 30 students, 20 said they had been “eating healthier” since being in health class, and 5 of those specifically mentioned eating more vegetables. Teaching students how to use a knife bridges one significant part of the gap between that whole, healthy, and maybe even locally grown vegetable, and a kid’s ability to eat and enjoy it.

Zoe Tucker is the author of this blog post and is the FoodCorps member serving with Somers, Cayuse Prairie, and Bigfork schools.

The Harvest Pizza
Crust: Whole wheat crust from Tassajara found on Google Books here.

Butternut Squash, cubed and roasted
Dried Cranberries
Onion, sliced into half-rings (bonus points for caramelizing onion before baking)
Olive oil

1. Spread olive oil over crust.
2. Arrange onion and squash on pizza. (NO tomato sauce necessary!)
3. Sprinkle mozzarella over pizza.
4. Bake at 500 and set the timer for 8-10 minutes. Check it at about 6 minutes.
5. Sprinkle dried cranberries on top AFTER pizza comes out of oven. Enjoy!