Friday, October 19, 2012

Opening minds, one bite at a time

Today at Root Elementary, it was Crazy Hat Day. It was also the Fayetteville Public Schools’ first National Farm to School Month apple tasting. I’d say it was a grand success! Moms and dads from the parent teacher organization, students, and teachers alike enjoyed learning about apples and Arkansas apple history while sitting in the warm fall sun. Students sampled and voted on their favorite apple, two of which were heirloom varieties. This afternoon, we will tally the results to post at the school, and send home to parents with fun apple facts and simple recipes using the winning apple variety.
For the next three weeks, we will be sharing the joy of local apples and the Farm to School program with nine schools. I am so impressed by the enthusiasm and participation in the tastings; the majority of schools in the district have decided to host the PTO-sponsored event. It seems the school staff and administrators were encouraged by the students’ excitement for local ingredients during last year’s Farm to School educational lunches and were eager to do more.
Farm to School is broadly defined as a program that connects schools (K-12) and local farms with the objectives of serving healthy meals in school cafeterias, improving student nutrition, providing agriculture, health and nutrition education opportunities, and supporting local and regional farmers. So, why is hosting a Farm to School event important? Could one event really make a difference in school or family eating and purchasing habits? My questions were answered today.
“Yummy! I’ve never eaten an Arkansas Black apple, but I love it! Where can you buy them?” exclaimed one first grader wearing a chic fedora hat. “How would I help support getting more local fruits and vegetables in the Root school lunches?” asked one interested PTO mom. The discussion begins, and one by one, habits can change. Maybe one or two items on the grocery list are now locally grown. Or perhaps there is a special stop made at the Farmer’s Market to pick up Arkansas Black apples every weekend in the fall. Or the PTO sends an inspiring email to the school principal and the District Child Nutrition Director. Small events can make a big difference.
In the last month or so that I have been serving with FoodCorps, many projects have caused me to reevaluate my definition of impact. Prior to National Farm to School Month, I thought a school apple tasting would be a fun event and give kids a break from the usual classroom routine while putting some extra cash in a few local producers’ pockets. These tastings do support and promote local farmers, but now I also see that these meaningful events start discussions about trying new foods and buying locally produced items that can have a big impact on eating habits and the sustainability of our local farms. Today was the first local apple tasting, I can’t wait to see the impact of the next eight.

To see video of the tasting at Root Elementary, click here.
by Ally Mrachek 

Ally is a Registered Dietitian, Master Composter and FoodCorps Service Member. She graduated with a Master’s of Science in Food Science and Human Nutrition from Colorado State University. She recently moved from Seattle, WA to Fayetteville, AR for a year to serve students, local farmers and the community in partnership with the public school district. She grew up on a fruit farm in agricultural Eastern Washington State and sees her service year as an adventure with a purpose.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Introducing Yellville-Summit Middle School...

Sara tends garden beds in the school's central courtyard.
It’s 7:45 on a September morning at Yellville-Summit Middle School. I’m putting the finishing touches on a cedar raised bed frame—leveling, clearing rocks, and picking out stubborn Bermuda grass roots. As school busses unload, the middle school students ask if I’m having fun. It’s about 90˚F already (still only 7:45am), and I can’t decide whether or not I should smile and lie. The kids ask if they can help move rocks, pull weeds, or water. I have since learned not to ever give a student control of the hose—someone is going to end up soaked.

When I signed up for FoodCorps, a nationwide team of leaders that connects kids to real food and helps them grow up healthy, I did not anticipate all the work and sweat that would come before the students and I could enjoy the fruits of our garden. I guess I had envisioned garden fairies (or better yet, gnomes), that would prepare a lush, productive garden where I could then explore, learn, eat, and play in with my students. Those first few weeks were tougher, physically, than I had anticipated.

Sara and her DGS Garden Program Specialist Katherine. 

Working with the Delta Garden Study* means my school receives all the resources to build a school garden, as well as a curriculum to teach everything from science to language arts utilizing the garden. Turns out, I’m included as one of those resources to build the garden.

Sweet peas on the trellis flanked by rows of lettuce.
Flash to now: lessons have started, sweet peas are on the trellis, and we are harvesting greens like nobody’s business. One of the goals of DGS is to see the effect of a school garden on school bonding—whether kids feel connected to their schools, feel excited about coming to school, and feel ownership over their garden. After only four weeks of Delta Garden Study lessons, I know, unscientifically, that most kids are excited to go out in the garden. Yellville has a population of around 1,200 people,  and in this rural town everyone seems to know everyone else. Naturally, everyone knew about me within a few days of my arrival. I have taken a bit longer to meet everyone, and I’m still definitely working on matching up faces to names. However, the kids frequently flag me down in the hallway to ask if today is a garden day or if we’re going to taste and recipes this week.  Now that we have produce to harvest, we’ve been cooking and preparing recipes, some familiar, others new. This week, we made sautéed turnip greens. Most kids around here are familiar with turnip greens; I had never tried them until now. One of the seventh grade boys said, “I wish they served this in the cafeteria!” Hopefully, that will happen in the next year. 

People, from students to faculty to grandparents, ask us how our garden looks so good. My response usually is that if you spent 40 hours a week on your garden, and it rained every weekend, then your garden would look amazing too! There is so much potential in school gardens, and I’m so fortunate to be serving in a community that is as excited about the garden as I.

Basil soon to be transformed into a new student favorite - pesto. 
*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

By Sara Fulton-Koerbling 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Introducing Holt Middle School...

 My first month serving at Holt Middle School in Fayetteville, AR has been a whirlwind of excitement and exhaustion. There is so much to do and so few coordinated hands to do it. That is why I’m here: to help mobilize members of this community around a common goal. We aim to improve our students’ learning environment and engagement in school, encouraging healthy behaviors and habits while we’re at it. Building relationships with these 5th, 6th, and 7th graders, watching their reactions to trying new foods, observing them exert all their energy to destroy the Bermuda Grass that has it in for our garden – these are all reasons why I love doing this work every day.

Expanding the garden’s role as a teaching tool is not a simple task as teachers struggle to meet this year’s new Common Core requirements. Some even say this year is like being a first year teacher all over again. However, as I say this, the garden program at Holt is slowly taking the school by storm. Right off the bat we expanded garden club hours in order to reach and include more students in garden activities. We added a cooking component as a way to engage more kids and encourage them to take what they learn at school and try it at home. 

Students  and volunteers bring their enthusiasm to the task of weeding. 
How do we balance wanting to include any kid remotely interested in the excitement of cooking and gardening with wanting to teach a dedicated group of students to plan, build, and maintain a garden of their own? We’re still figuring it out. But in the meantime, students are showing me that the work we are already doing is worth every second. 

This "mini garden" greets everyone at the entrance to the school.
The other day at lunch, one of my 6th grade students points at the bell pepper in my heaping salad and asks, “what’s that red thingy?” I tell her that it’s a sweet bell pepper and ask her if she’s ever tried one. She shakes her head, and I proceed to take a piece of my bell pepper, dip it in my homemade balsamic vinaigrette and pass it over to her. She makes a scared face and asks me if it’s good. I say, “It’s delicious! Try it!” So she tries it, and as I expected, likes it. Now that was rewarding, but things get even better when we’re sitting together at lunch the following day and she says, “I told my grandma about the peppers we ate yesterday. She said she loves peppers too. Can you give us the recipe for your sauce?” I say, “Of course!” and let her know that I’ll show the whole club how to make the dressing once our lettuce gets big enough to make salads. She smiles, and my eyes light up at the thought of all the future experiences I can bring to these kids with the help of my team at Holt and the local community of volunteers.

by Sophia Gill