Friday, April 26, 2013

The USDA Comes to Town!

Yesterday was one of my proudest moments as a FoodCorps Service Member. USDA Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition & Consumer Services, Kevin Concannon, and his staff made a visit to our school district to learn more about our sustainability efforts and Seed-to-Student programming. The Owl Creek School classroom was full of community partners, district administrators and board members, state and federal leaders, and one uncomfortable-looking produce farmer in a tie. The FPS team presented the many facets of what makes our programs unique and successful. It was a wonderful reminder that none of the local products or food education we bring into our district would be as successful if we didn’t work together and take advantage of the unique assets each partner brings.  

photo courtesy of Fayetteville Public Schools
The attendees moved through the cafeteria line anticipating the meal prepared by the district’s chef and food service staff that featured eight products from local producers, the University’s farm, and the Owl Creek School garden. The conversation in line and during lunch highlighted big wins for the district’s Seed to Student program, the benefits and importance of farm to school, and warm fuzzy stories of students enjoying and exploring healthy, local food and school gardens. 

Students proudly present their ongoing compost project.
By far the most meaningful part of the afternoon was our time in the garden with the students. Three high school boys presented their bike-powered water cistern pump that brought rainwater from the roof of the school to the plants in our garden. The crowd was all smiles and Mr. Concannon was clearly impressed. Next three student’s from Mrs. Richardson’s 5th grade science class, whom I have been working closely with all school year, told us how they built the compost bin, tended their pile, took measurements, and made observations to reinforce what they learned in class. The story of ecosystems, decomposers, and nutrient cycling came alive for them in their compost piles. They said their favorite part of garden time was planting seeds and harvesting compost from their worm bin. After working with their class for almost a year, no words could have made me feel happier. They are so smart. They are so inspiring. I am so proud.

photo courtesy of Fayetteville Public Schools
We hope that our message was clear, and I think it was. Everyday, I experience first hand how Farm to School programming and garden-based education helps connect classroom lessons to the real world, and supporting local agriculture is crucial to the health of our students and community.  The group took photos and finished up conversations. Mr. Concannon and his staff were very thankful for the afternoon and left with smiles on their faces. We are grateful for their time and know our stories and successes will be shared with important decision makers in Washington D.C.

- by Ally Mrachek

Friday, April 19, 2013

Fringe [Foodie] Benefits

With AmeriCorps Week behind us, I’ve had a lot of time to consider how “AmeriCorps works,” and the impact I witness firsthand each day as a FoodCorps Service Member. It’s easy to look at the benefit of my service as simply the community that I serve in, the pounds of produce we harvest and donate, the new dishes kids have tasted and the minutes we spend together in the classroom or the garden. Those are hard facts, raw data. We compile all of those figures specifically because they do paint a pretty fascinating picture—assigning some sort of number value to my service. Lately, I’ve been more inclined to look at the benefits of service that I receive.

Just a few weeks ago, I got a package in the mail from Seed Savers Exchange. I was really excited to open it and find a beautiful French Breakfast radish t-shirt, some awesome heirloom seeds, and a book on saving seed. There was information on how to sell seeds as a spring fundraiser, which I hope to do next year because it was unfortunately a little too late for this spring. I have admired Seed Savers Exchange ever since I read about the organization a few years back. To be receiving a package full of goodies from them because of my affiliation with FoodCorps was unreal.

Lettuce and spinach thrive in Sara's greenhouse. 
A few weeks later, I received an email from the folks at FoodCorps double-checking my mailing address where I could receive a package. This request was just enough detail to get me excited, but I had no idea what I was in for. For Christmas this year, I got a fancy food dehydrator. After experimenting with all sorts of raw recipes and kale chips and dried-every-kind-of-fruit, I made the decision that the next big-ticket kitchen gadget I would need to invest in was a Vitamix blender. I’m not sure where I learned about Vitamixes, because it almost seems to me that the legendary blenders have always had a spot in my food/cooking obsessed brain. Imagine my surprise about a week after the mailing address email, when I got a new email announcing the shipment of a Vitamix blender for each FoodCorps Service Member. I immediately started fantasizing about all the kale smoothies and nut butters I would soon be whipping up.
The Vitamix has arrived!

I waited anxiously for my new culinary toy to arrive. And waited. And waited. I was starting to worry that it was lost in the mail. My fellow Service Members around Arkansas had received theirs. Service Members in very remote, rural places had received theirs. I was stressed. Finally one Tuesday evening, (probably only a little more than a week after the announcement was made) my blender was here.

I unpacked the box. There was an instructional DVD. I wasn’t sure why a blender would need a DVD accompaniment, and I skipped ahead to the beautiful hardcover cookbook. Again, never realized that a blender would need a cookbook. But then I saw the recipe for milk substitutes (soy milk, almond milk, coconut milk, cashew milk, rice milk, on and on). I was hooked.

Look at that crowd!
That week in the garden, we harvested 6 pounds of sweet winter kale. In each class the following week, we made kale smoothies. Each group started off a bit skeptical—kale, strawberries, peaches, and other assorted fruits and veggies make for a bizarrely colored drink. However, after the first sip, most of the students were converted. After school, a group of students approached me to ask for some more kale so they could go home and recreate their own smoothies. I am so excited about all the creative ways we can use the Vitamix to expose kids to new ways to incorporate veggies into their day. 

- by Sara Fulton-Koerbling