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