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:

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

By Jade Salzman