Tuesday, December 18, 2012

On volunteers and getting the job done

One of the most important factors for the success of a school garden might not be the square footage, the germination rate, or even the expertise of a garden leader. I’m here to tell you that the most important ingredient in creating a lasting school garden is interest.

I almost said excitement was the most important element, but in my experience, excitement fades. It’s been great so far this semester to talk to people at my school and in the community who are excited about having a school garden project. However, the majority of those supporters haven’t made it out to our garden workshops or contributed anything more than a kind word. I am not ungrateful for that encouragement, especially on tough days. Realistically though, it takes a village.

Here at Yellville-Summit, we have begun hosting volunteer work parties. Our preparations for a winter garden simply kept getting pushed back, especially when the weekend temperatures stayed in the 70’s into November. It was easy to pretend that it would never turn cold, yet here I am, during a week where the high hasn’t gotten to 40, and the temperature inside our (unheated) greenhouse doesn’t go about freezing until after lunch.

It seems as though a completed greenhouse is our white whale. We have had something greenhouse related on our to-do lists since my first week on the job. We’ve relied a lot on the help of volunteers to make the final push to finish. Pulling plastic proved our number one delicate and challenging task. Pulling plastic involves taking a single sheet of plastic and stretching it over the frame to form the roof of the greenhouse. You need a lot of hands to do the actual pulling and attaching; you need a day with very little wind, otherwise you’ll get picked up and blown to Missouri! I’ve been told that at this time of year in the Ozarks, on nice clear days, the wind comes up. On days that it isn’t windy, it’s probably raining or snowing.

We scheduled three days to pull plastic. The first day, we cancelled because it was raining. The second day, we had about 12 people come out to help; however,  it was too windy to, so we worked on the end walls instead. The final day, we had a small window of time before the wind came up. We called on some high school volunteers to come out after their lunch and a group of community volunteers who also came after their lunch break. At long last, everything was secured, tightened, and fastened against the wind and the cold weather.

These volunteer days, held over the weekend, and open to parents, students, teachers, community members, and anyone who might want to lend a hand, are really inspiring. Our aim is to make these work days fun, informative, and productive. We build the day around a certain task to finish. This past weekend, we needed to build raised beds inside of our greenhouse. We started the day with a brief overview of season extension techniques and cold weather crops. After squaring the ends of lots of cedar boards, we had a mulching crew and a construction crew. After about an hour of work, I drifted off toward the kitchen to prepare our edible rewards for the volunteers. We had roasted root veggies and sautéed greens—eating both the tops and the bottoms of many of the same plants. Turnips and beets, collards, carrots, rainbow chard, and tatsoi.

As most of my projects tend to be, this was kind of a fly by the seat of our pants endeavor. No matter how many times I measure and level my cuts, one board will always be off. I’m not good at being precise. I’ve learned to live with this, but working with new people is always interesting. We are lucky enough to have quite a few people in the area with expertise in carpentry and woodworking, in addition to farming and gardening. I’m generally the least experienced person in the bunch. What I think is acceptably straight and what the woodworker down the street thinks is quite different. I have learned to stand back and let those more experienced take the lead. For example, this weekend I provided a pile of local cedar planks, a workshop with tools, a draft of the proposed greenhouse layout, and the instruction to do whatever he thought was best to get it done. The project took longer than the two hours I had allotted for it, but when I hand the reigns over the results can be pretty spectacular.

For me, the most surprising part of the day was who actually showed up in support. Many of our ten volunteers had no connection to the school or the project - most of them don’t work here or have kids in the program. They simply heard about the garden workday and wanted to come help. They aren’t just coming to bring their kids, or because a teacher told them about the opportunity. I’m particularly excited about those volunteers. Those volunteers are very likely to keep coming back and stay invested.

Our garden would not be as far along, as productive, or as likely to continue into the future without the help of our volunteers. 

by Sara Fulton-Koerbling 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Healthy Happenings at Holt Middle

Last month, I commented on how fast winter was approaching, but it appears that Arkansas still can’t seem to make up its mind about the season. Unseasonably warm weather means that Holt’s garden is still producing copious amounts of greens! Every week we harvest several lettuce varieties, spinach, and arugula for the cafeteria salad bar. This week, we celebrated our harvest with a salad extravaganza. I taught my students how to make homemade balsamic vinaigrette, which we used to dress the greens along with our garden grown carrots and a couple other vegetables donated by Ozark Natural Foods, a local grocery cooperative. We also harvested kale and learned how to bake kale chips! Exposing the students to this new vegetable in a form that is more familiar to them worked wonders. Not one student had a negative reaction. In fact, they were completely devoured in less than 30 seconds!

Contrast this experience with the week I made Lola Bloom’s massaged kale salad for the kids. It was a huge disappointment, because from the moment I had tasted that salad during FoodCorps orientation, I was excited to feed it to students. Almost all of my students rejected it. The flavor and texture was just too unfamiliar for their unadventurous palates. Being a huge fan of massaged kale salad myself, I was completely deflated. What kept me going was the small handful of kids who loved it and especially the girl who said: “If I can have my own restaurant when I grow up, I’m gonna put this kale salad on the menu.” I responded: “You mean when you own your own restaurant,” and “THAT’S AWESOME!” (my heart melts). Hearing this kept me from giving up, but the kale chip success re-inspired me.

Not only does Ozark Natural Foods help us out with ingredients for our Garden Club here and there, but they have also made possible free monthly cooking classes for Holt Middle School families. We offered our first class in November, and it went splendidly. Charles Ragland, a father of one of the students here at Holt, is a trained chef and led the class. All ages participated in cooking a nutritious, balanced meal. FoodCorps Service Member and Registered Dietician Ally Mrachek discussed the nutrition of the meal components, and everyone got to take home a recipe to make the meal at home. We look forward to offering these hands-on cooking classes every month from now on. From reading the feedback forms I had the attendees fill out, it’s obvious that people are very eager to learn how to make their meals healthier while still making them filling and delicious. With the help of Ozark Natural Foods and my colleagues here in Fayetteville, we will be able to get this information out to families and eat a delicious meal together while we’re at it!

Beautiful ingredients culminating in a tasty, healthy meal!
You can read about our class on the blog of Ozark Natural Foods as well. 

by Sophia Gill

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Thanks To the People Behind Every School Garden

In 2011 I graduated college, found a place with FoodCorps, and moved to a small
town in the Ozark mountains called Marshall, Arkansas. As a service members I
moved to a new community, bringing with me a passion for healthy eating and a
sizable helping of ideas for my new classes. My school garden turned out to be
the best office any recent college grad could aspire to have, mainly because of the
people that I came to know in my community. After all, passion and ideas make for
poor companions without finding the people that can share them. Consider this blog
post my FoodCorps Thanksgiving table.

Summer potato harvest at the Marshall School Garden. 
Thanks to the teachers: the ones that took me under their wing, making sure I had what I needed to be successful in service. The ones that patiently answered my endless questions about educational standards and lesson plans. The teachers that might not have known it at the time, but they showed me how to work with kids, and are shining examples of what it means to care. Thanks to the teachers that took a chance in bringing their classes to a place without four walls, and saw just how much kids can learn from the garden. 

Thanks to the administrators, staff, and community volunteers: the principal that
tasted pesto for the first time to show the kids a good example, the superintendent
that connected us with the resources we needed, but still had time to have conversation. To the maintenance staff that forgave us for the stubborn dirt
clinging to our student’s shoes as they walked back inside from the garden. To the
secretaries that quietly run the whole show. To the community members that give so much of themselves without a thought of receiving gratitude in return.

Arkansas service members gathered to
celebrate MLK Day last year.
To family and friends: the ones that thought I was crazy to embark on this journey, but supported me anyway. To my fellow service members, you taught me so much about work, food, and life. To the friends that introduced me to the wonders of my new home, and helped me smile when our corner of the world seemed bleak. To the gardeners that showed me what it means to help plants and children grow.

To FoodCorps and all our supporters, unseen and otherwise: To the staff that makes it possible for us to wake up every day with purpose, to support ourselves and pursue a year of service. To all the kindred spirits that believe that kids deserve to grow up having an enduring relationship with healthy food, and are working to make that a reality in their communities.

Packaging greens for a food bank
alongside community volunteers.
And, not to be forgotten, thank you to the skeptics. Every wrinkled nose, scowl, and cold stare I encountered last year taught me the importance of resilience. Most of all, thank you to the kids that made persevering through the challenges into an easy decision. Thanks to the students that gave me and the garden a chance. Thanks to the kids that chose to bravely go with me where no middle schooler had gone before, to a world of swiss chard, raw broccoli, and zucchini fritters.

As a FoodCorps fellow I am incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to support this year’s cohort of Arkansas service members as they form their own connections with people in their new communities. I know first hand how important those connections can be. 

To all the people that I never knew I would meet, but whom I cannot imagine my life without, thank you and happy Thanksgiving!

by Rachel Spencer

This article was also featured on the Annie's Blog. To learn more about the partnership between FoodCorps and Annie's, visit their website

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Green Friday versus Black Friday

November is the official beginning of the holiday season. Stores have put up decorations and started playing Christmas music as early as November 1st. Black Friday can’t even wait until Friday anymore. My email inbox is flooded with recipes and tricks to cook the perfect turkey and make exciting yet traditional pumpkin pie. During this season of plenty, with holidays focusing on food and family, it can be difficult to think critically about food. Certainly, preparing a veritable feast for your mother-in-law can be daunting; imagine what you would do if simply buying the turkey wasn’t in your budget by the 22nd day of the month.

I live in a limited-resource community for my year of service with FoodCorps. Around 70% of our students receive free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch through the nation school lunch and school breakfast programs. In Arkansas, almost twenty percent of households are food insecure, or lack reliable access to healthy food, a level exceeding the national average. Although many people have criticized the new school food regulations, I know that many of my students don’t see such varied fresh fruits and vegetables at home. They just aren’t available at one of the two grocery stores in town. Two weeks ago, we made a raw beet and carrot salad. One student asked if they could buy the ingredients at Harp’s, and I realized I had never seen raw beets, only canned. I told her not to worry, if they didn’t have it at Harp’s she could always harvest some from the garden to take home.

Our school garden, started this year by a grant from the Delta Garden Study, currently provides both an outdoor classroom for middle school science classes to engage their curriculum in a real world setting. We also harvest for our in class recipe tastings, and there is enough for us to send home with students, faculty, and staff each Friday. In fact, right now, students are busy harvesting their own bounty to share with their families on Thanksgiving. 

 As early as spring, we hope to be harvesting salad greens, herbs and other ingredients to satisfy the volume needs of our cafeteria. Serving all our students, from preschool to high school, fresh food that many of them have watched grow is the goal. Last week, we made a veggie stir fry as our weekly recipe. We had some brown rice and ginger from the store, but everything else, greens, carrots, zucchini, onions, radishes, garlic, snap peas, and more, was fresh from the garden. Having students tend the garden beds, harvest, wash, and then help cook, makes a meal so much more meaningful. One 7th grade boy said, “If I could have a big bowl of this for lunch, I would be a happy camper.”

by Sara Fulton-Koerbling 

Friday, November 16, 2012

For the Love of Worms

Did you know if you cut a worm in half it will not produce two living worms? Despite
what the neighbor boy told you all those years ago, the result is one dead worm cut in two.

At this month’s Garden Leader Workshop, attendees learned this fun fact and all about composting food scraps using worms, or vermicomposting. I just love that word. Say it aloud with me. Vermicomposting.

In front of about a dozen parents, community members, and teachers attending the workshop, I assembled a worm bin made of two plastic containers, two tin cans, some shredded newspaper, and a wire kitchen sink strainer. You use what you have around here. Together worm expert, Jane Maginot from University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension, and I demystified vermicomposting by providing easy tips for turning food waste from the kitchen into a nutrient rich soil amendment for garden beds or indoor plants. Attendees learned why it’s important to compost, the benefits of compost, and worm anatomy and reproduction as they hunched over small piles of worm castings (compost aka worm poop) identifying critters with a magnifying glass. Eisenia fetidaalso known as red wiggler, red worm, or manure worm, are by far the best worms for decomposing organic matter; though, all worms are decomposers to some extent. The red wigglers are red and smaller than earthworms and a fisherman’s best friends as they are often used as bait.

There was a feeling of genuine fascination in the room. Many attendees commented on how simple it was to build a worm bin and start composting. Others said they had a new appreciation for worms and had never thought about them in this way before.

At the end of the workshop, the demonstration worm bin went home with one lucky raffle winner. Jane donated some red wigglers to get the bin off to a great start. Jared, the garden leader at Washington Elementary, won the bin. Those worms are on their way to a new home to hopefully evoke in students a love and fascination for two things I am very passionate about: composting and worms. Vermicomposting. I just love that word.

For more information about worms and vermicomposting, check out these resources:

Benefits and general information about compost, bin designs and maintenance:

General vermicomposting information, including what foods can go in a worm bin:

Learning about vermicomposting in the classroom: https://www.bae.ncsu.edu/topic/vermicomposting/pubs/ag-464-vermi-curriculum.pdf

by Ally Mrachek 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Fall in full swing at Holt Middle!

Winter is coming fast, and we've had our work cut out for us here at Holt Community Gardens. We harvested our radishes, trying them plain and incorporating them into a radish dip to eat with cut up veggies. One student responded with an animated "ewwww" when I told her we would be snacking on radish dip that day, but after trying it, I couldn't get her hand out of the bowl! Our lettuce and kale are growing like crazy, so a group of students and I head out every Tuesday and Thursday morning before school to harvest for the cafeteria. 

Radishes destined for veggie dip, and Holt's lettuce harvest on the salad bar!
In the coming weeks, we will be able to harvest carrots and spinach, as well as a few volunteer chard plants to sauté during our club meeting. Students are learning about seed saving, mulching, data collection, season extension  and cold-tolerant plants. They've made veggie pizza and Holiday pumpkin soup from pumpkins that they baked themselves. Dedicated members of the Fayetteville community come out every week to serve as role models and helping hands for our students and us during these club meetings. 

Not only does garden work keep us busy, we have started integrating food and nutrition education into classes throughout the school. Our school district featured a story about my recent New World vs. Old World pizza lesson for 5th grade social studies classes. Check out the article here

New World versus Old World ingredients.

During the month of October, the school district enjoyed local apple tastings organized by FoodCorps service member Ally Mrachek and colleagues. At Holt, we took the tasting even further by incorporating it into a full science lab. The students practiced the scientific method by coming up with hypotheses for which apple they thought they would like the most. They then used the data collected from seeing, tasting, smelling, feeling, and hearing each type of apple to draw a conclusion. 

Pickled cucumber and carrots await a tasting
as part of 7th grade social studies classes. 

This week, I delivered a food preservation lesson to 7th grade social studies classes in conjunction with their unit on ancient Egypt. Their teachers discussed the ancient Egyptian practice of mummification, and I focused on how humans have used different methods of food preservation throughout history, ancient Egyptians included. I will show them how to pickle cucumbers and carrots, and then we will taste them!

I've found that bringing food lessons into the classroom helps students make connections between what they are learning in garden club and what our cafeteria serves, thereby increasing the relevance of the information in their everyday lives. Reaching these kids from every angle is the best way to make an impact and raise the next generation's awareness of how to keep the Earth and their bodies healthy. 

By Sophia Gill

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Introducing Cloverdale Aerospace Technology Conversion Charter Middle School...

Monday through Thursday, I wake up in the morning, get dressed, and head to Cloverdale Aerospace Technology Conversion Charter Middle School. Most days one of my students will run out to meet me in the garden to help me feed hens, water starts, and share his or her garden know-how. After the bell rings my student helper goes to class, and I get started on my own list of what needs to be done in the garden. My first class doesn’t start until 10:41am, so I have at least two hours each morning to get things done. Usually this means I water, weed, seed, and till. On recipe days I spend some time cooking. The solitude, the peace, and the sweat I break doing these garden tasks gets my day started off right.

Ryan and Jade repair a trellis. 
I serve side by side with Ryan, a garden program specialist that works for the Delta Garden Study.*  I accompany Ryan to the first class of the day so I can observe the flow of the day’s lesson and offer a hand with questions and concerns from students. When the class comes out to the garden, we divide them into smaller, more manageable groups and I lead mine in any number of garden tasks. In the space between classes, I realize how short twenty minutes really is when as I try to prepare a new batch of food or set up a new garden activity before the next class arrives.  We teach all day Monday through Thursday, and it seems like we are always moving!
On Fridays my partner and I get things done that we couldn’t do with limited time during the week. We don’t have classes on this day (yet!) so we get those things done that require just two people and quite a bit of attention to detail. Fridays also mean  monthly staff meetings in downtown Little Rock, Most weekends I go to my garden to do more work, or at the least check up on the hens and water new transplants or starts.

Red Russian Kale transplants in the foreground, lettuce in the background. 
I have been serving in Little Rock, Arkansas for twelve weeks, and I tell everyone- from friends and family to the people who strike up conversation in hallways and social functions- that I love what I do. Each day I am surrounded by curious students who make me laugh, the sun is always on my face and skin, my problem solving is constantly put to the test, my body is constantly in motion, and I really feel like I am making an impact in the lives of others.

*The Delta Garden Study is a $2 million research study funded by the USDA’s Agriculture Research Service, designed to prevent childhood obesity and social risk behaviors, and improve academic achievement, in middle school children in the Delta and Central regions of Arkansas. Led by Dr. Judy Weber, Associate Professor in the Department of Pediatrics in the College of Medicine at UAMS, the study’s primary outcome variables are increased fruit and vegetable intake and increased minutes of physical activity. Secondary variable include reduction in body mass index (BMI) and body fat, reductions in social risk behaviors, and increased school bonding, improved student grade point averages and benchmark testing scores. 

You can learn more about the Delta Garden Study at http://www.arteengarden.com/

By Jade Salzman