Much More Than This

By: Katie Sanders FoodCorps Service Member

Today is my last official day of service as a FoodCorps service member. These past 11 months have been challenging in many ways but it has flown by and I have thoroughly enjoyed my time spent in Jackson County. As I write this I am running over in my head a list of to do and slowly but surely, I have crossed every item off. The garden and classroom are ready for students to return, my collection of items that I have used during my service have been returned, and all of the necessary paperwork has been signed and turned in. Just like that, with a few formal processes and a couple of forms and my service term is complete.

I have written about this before, but it is necessary to mention again that measuring the effectiveness or impact of a year of service is difficult to do. Perhaps this was made even more clear to me in my last few weeks of service as I helped two other FoodCorps members in Athens with a farm camp that they hosted. This camp involved a small group of students, however they all came to us from quite diverse backgrounds and extremely varying levels of interest in actually attending camp. Daily activities included farm chores in the morning: harvesting, cleaning up beds, weeding, and garden interactive activities, games, and crafts after lunch. We quickly learned however that keeping a structured day was far less important than keeping the morale of the group up. To be fair, camp was hot (read: really extremely hot) and each day we were outside from 8 am to 4 pm, hiding in the shade and spraying ourselves with the hose whenever possible, and thus we didn’t blame our campers for the occasional crankiness. However, there were many days, especially in the beginning of camp when we felt defeated by a lack of enthusiasm from our kids and a general distrust of our camp plans. We were scrambling to make our activities more fun but still pointed and focused so that the campers would actually learn a few things while with us.

At the start of the second week we had almost reached the end of our rope with a daunting 5 days of  camp left, however something clicked that day. The kids came to camp ready for our activities and seemed even a little excited to be there. During down times the kids would create their own activities and play with each other. Slowly it was happening. Our camp was coming together. Although this did come and go in waves before camp finished, by the end of the second week we could see our kids starting to be more engaged and take more ownership in their participation. It took tiny baby steps but that, once again, is the mark of a year of service in this field of dealing with food and farming systems and education.

In the end our impact is so much more than these little silly farming activities and games. In the end, it will be much more than the frustrations and the struggles and will be more about the lessons learned and the relationships formed. In the end we hope that we have brought more awareness to the food system and brought about conversations with these kids that can impact their lives and the lives of others around them.

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Campers made a big salad one day with lots of fresh vegetables.

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Butterfly catching became a really important pass time for our campers. 

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The cold water from the hose was a staple for surviving the summer heat! 

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Faith

by FoodCorps Service Member Susie Burton

In about a week, I will finish two years of FoodCorps service.  I will complete my end of term evaluation, sign my exit paperwork, and collect all the garden-themed picture books and child-safe nylon knives lurking in every corner of my house to return to our office.  I will turn over maintenance of our school gardens to our very capable farm to school teams and some stellar parent volunteers, and wish and hope with all my might that the heavy rains don’t cause our tomatoes to split before students can taste them in August.

I will wish and hope with all my might that some small piece of my service–one of the hundreds of lessons taught, one of the thousands of taste test samples distributed or seeds planted–will stick with students, will actually help to accomplish the massive, abstract task of “changing our food system.”  But there’s no way to truly know, short of peeking into their homes to see if they’re asking their parents to buy greens for smoothies, or peeking into the future to see if they pursue culinary or horticultural interests as adolescents and adults.  Forgive me the trite food movement metaphor, but the inability to predict or control an outcome is precisely what makes farming–and farm to school–risky, thrilling, and life affirming.  You can plan your rows and your lessons, read up on integrated pest management and culturally responsive pedagogical practices, and give all your tender loving care to your seedlings and your students.  In the end, though, the bounty of the harvest is determined by your careful planning and attention and also by uncontrollable and sometimes unseen forces of the universe, in microorganisms, soil mechanics, and lucky weather.  

Faith in those uncontrollable forces makes this work not work but a vocation–a way to live.  We are dependent on the mycelia and microforces of our soils and our communities for growth and harvest.  By default, that dependence connects us with fellow humans and our natural and physical world, constantly reminding us of the necessity and the beauty of reciprocity.  Reciprocity between the physical, the vegetal, the animal, and the human grows our crops and grows our students.  Once again forgive my triteness, but we accomplish nothing alone.  As I close my service with FoodCorps, beneath the small worry that the tomatoes might split or the weeds might overtake the strawberry bed, I feel so much gratitude for the two years I was in a position that constantly reminded me of my niche in Northeast Georgia and in our greater food and educational systems, that constantly reminded me of the importance of both nuanced, thoughtful planning and of faith in reciprocity, as a way to garden, teach, and live. 

[In lieu of photos directly relevant to this post, enjoy some highlights from our 2017 Farm+Food Camp, co-hosted with Habersham County 4H in June!]

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How to End a Year

By: Katie Sanders FoodCorps Service Member

I knew it would happen before I knew it, but nevertheless it is already the end of the school year and I am still shocked. I am still getting used to the month of May, let alone the fact that school is out and the summer season is upon us. The end of the school year was marked with the usual madness of end-of-year celebrations, award ceremonies and field day activities, however as a FoodCorps service member the end of the year also marked the last time that I would get to interact with the majority of my students. For my EJES students, it was the last time that I would be formally in a classroom with them and the last time they would have a lesson with me as Ms. Garden Katie. With this on my mind, my collaborative teacher at EJES and I decided to host a “garden celebration” with each of the 2nd grade classes as our end of year activity.

For our garden party we chose to make garden pizzas. Each student was given a tortilla “pizza” with pizza sauce and cheese. They were then allowed to put on toppings such as shredded spinach and chopped bell peppers. From our farm field trip to Rocking W farm a few weeks ago, we were lucky to be able to also serve fresh ground beef (cooked of course!) as a topping along with fresh radishes and rosemary that the students picked from our school garden just before we started cooking. It really validated our efforts in garden education when students were begging me for extra spinach and were encouraging each other to taste the radishes!

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For refreshments we made garden mint lemonade from freshly squeezed lemons, simple syrup and fresh mint from the garden as well. We tossed all the ingredients in a blender with water and lots of ice to create a tasty herbed slushy! The kids went crazy for it and it is definitely a recipe I will be using in the upcoming hot summer months.

While I was (and continue to be) quite sad that the year has come to an end, I am also excited for my students to continue their garden learning in the future and I hope they are able take all the fun times we shared in the garden with them wherever their future studies take them.

 

Sweet Spring

by FoodCorps Service Member Susie Burton

Only two weeks remain in our Habersham school year, and after clearing the hurdle of Milestones testing, we are more than ready to celebrate spring.  The almost universal favorite herald of the vernal season–the sweet, voluptuous strawberry–has been our go-to method of celebration.  Whether it’s for a schoolwide taste test, in a smoothie, or straight from the garden, strawberries are brightening our plates and our smiles, and reminding us there’s always a reward at the end of a winter spent prepping for milestones and eating Brassicas.

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Lettuce Eat Fresh

By: Katie Sanders FoodCorps Service Member

When trying to get fresh produce on the lunch line it can often take a good amount of planning, organization, and communication between myself and the cafeteria staff. We coordinate what produce is in season with what can be purchased at a cheaper price and in a large enough amount to feed the entire school on the lunch line. It can be a more arduous process than one might think.

However, sometimes you can skip that whole process when a day like today happens. This week at South Jackson Elementary we had an abnormally large amount of students choose to eat a side salad with their lunch which completely depleted the amount of lettuce that the cafeteria had to serve for the next day. Luckily for us our student grown school garden was currently flourishing with mixed lettuce heads! After my cafeteria manager mentioned the lettuce shortage, we were able to harvest ~6 lbs of lettuce that was promptly washed, chopped, and served fresh on the lunch line.

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Look at all those beautiful greens!

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Mr. Lush and our cafeteria manager, Mrs. Sinde Chambers, posing with me and our fancy lettuce. 

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As always our students were extra impressed and excited to eat something that they had grown themselves and many commented on how tasty the greens were!

Mindfulness in the Garden

By FoodCorps Service Member Susie Burton

Springtime brings fresh rain, beautiful blooms, and for Georgia educators, the high-stakes, demanding period of Milestones testing.  In the weeks directly before and during Milestones, it’s infeasible for most testing classes to get out and learn in the school garden–there’s simply too much material to cover to devote time to the slower paced, experiential learning for which gardens are best.

But that doesn’t mean testing teachers and their students must miss out on enjoying the delights of spring in the garden.  At my elementary schools, we practiced what we call “Mindfulness in the Garden.”  Teachers sign up for fifteen minute slots, and I walk students through various calming and centering activities.  Some of our favorites include:

  • practicing a bit of plant-inspired body movement.  We start small and close to the ground as seeds; move our feet and wiggle our toes as our roots start to grow; stand up straight as our stem reaches to the sky; spread our arms wide as our leaves capture sunlight; open our eyes wide and smile as beautiful flowers; and finally hop into the shape of our favorite fruit (my personal favorite banana).
  • lying or sitting, in the shade or the sun, in a place where we will not disturb anyone near us.  We close our eyes (or not, if someone doesn’t want to), and take five deep breaths.  We then start to notice everything we can hear (cars, birds, breeze in the grass); smell (mud, a hopefully faint whiff of our compost tumbler); and feel (sunshine, wind, the Earth supporting our bodies).  We take a few moments to appreciate how wondrous it is to have a body and to simply exist on a Tuesday afternoon.
  • reading garden-inspired poetry.  A particular favorite is Laughing Tomatoes and Other Spring Poems/Jitomates risueños y otros poemas de primavera by Francisco X. Alarcón.  We usually read each poem in both English and Spanish; if we don’t all speak both languages, we take the opportunity to appreciate the beauty of the sounds of language, separate from its meaning.

Practicing mindfulness in the garden calms and centers our brains, so we are better equipped to deal with the real and important stressor of testing.  It also helps our garden become a more dynamic aspect of our school landscape and culture, a place for mental and emotional well-being, as well as physical and intellectual development.

Grits and Greens!

By: Katie Sanders FoodCorps Service Member

Our first farmer visit of the year went off with great success at SJES this past week. Farmer Nathan Brett from DaySpring Farm joined three of our classes for the day to give a presentation on his farm operation and share some of his delicious produce. DaySpring Farm started in 2011 and is an 87 acre family farm operation that is a part of the Athens Farmers Market. With a mill on site for processing their grains, the Brett family is able to ensure a higher quality and healthier product. The family also has a garden space that produces some truly beautiful vegetables.

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Some of the prettiest rainbow chard I’ve ever seen! 

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Farmer Nathan’s presentation with pictures of tractors was almost an even bigger hit than the food with 1st grade. 

Farmer Nathan brought freshly stone ground grits to share with our classes along with some gorgeous rainbow chard and collard greens. Two fifth grade classes and one 1st grade class were lucky to have the farmer visit and got to try the “grits and greens” that we cooked up. Almost every student that tried the grits loved them, including most of the 1st graders. Although one did come up to me to say, “I really liked the grits but it would’ve been much better without that green stuff.” I was really impressed and proud of all of my students that tried the grits despite the funny green stuff!

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For the cooking classes that didn’t get to have the farmer visit, we made our ever popular kale smoothies. Through FoodCorps’ partnership with Vitamix we were able to use a Vitamix blender to blend up some super creamy smoothies. With that first grade class, every student that tried the smoothie liked it! If you are looking for a quick, easy, and healthy smoothie option for kids this one is a great one with just some frozen bananas, shredded kale, and apple cider all blended together.

Gathering Farm to School Inspiration

By: Katie Sanders, FoodCorps service member

This week I had the opportunity to drive down to Burke County, Georgia to visit their Farm to School program. Burke County has been awarded the Gold Level Golden Radish Award, a distinction given to schools with exceeding farm to school programs, since 2014 and this past year they were even awarded Outstanding District of the Year. We met with Kara Leclair, the Assistant Nutrition Director in charge of Farm to School, Early Head Start, and the district wellness policy, who gave us an overview of the farm to school program before driving us around the county to visit the schools and a local farm that supplies the cafeterias.

Our first stop on the tour was the aquaponics farm, Fisheads, which supplies the county’s schools with fresh lettuce to be used on the lunch line. The facility, which uses fish to naturally fertilize the plants, is a great aid in supplying vegetables to the schools. We even tried the lettuce on the lunch line later at one of the schools and it was very fresh and flavorful!

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After the farm visit we traveled to a couple of the schools to see how they incorporate farm to school into the classroom setting. At the primary school, the most striking feature was the painted decorations all around the cafeteria. Walking into the cafeteria felt like entering a jungle space as every wall was covered in flora and fauna from tropical rainforests. On the lunch line itself were realistic and cartoon depictions of food items. It is surprising how much a little paint and decoration can really increase the cafeteria environment. I certainly want to incorporate these ideas back into the food environment at my service sites.

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Our visit to Burke County was an inspiring reminder of all the exciting things with which farm to school programs can be involved. They use a mobile cooking cart that travels between schools to bring in cooking and nutrition lessons into the classroom across the county. To support their cafeterias, the farm to school program purchases a wide variety of local products including whole wheat flour, a variety of fresh frozen peas, and lettuce from local farms or mills. It is exciting to see farm to school flourishing in a county and it certainly gave me loads of ideas for how we can continue to improve our farm to school influence here in Jackson County.