In my role as a FoodCorps service member, I am tasked with three interconnected pillars of work that, done together, can help transform kids’ relationships to food. They are: teaching kids about healthy food and where it comes from, engaging kids in hands-on gardening and cooking lessons, and working with school food staff to get healthy food from … Continued
By FoodCorps — December 03, 2014
In my role as a FoodCorps service member, I am tasked with three interconnected pillars of work that, done together, can help transform kids’ relationships to food. They are: teaching kids about healthy food and where it comes from, engaging kids in hands-on gardening and cooking lessons, and working with school food staff to get healthy food from local farms onto school lunch trays. That third one, which is all about access (i.e. if you teach kids about healthy food you must also make sure they have opportunities to eat it), can be the hardest.
At the beginning of my FoodCorps service term in Springdale Arkansas, I quickly began to worry that this third “pillar” of access to healthy food, might be impossible to tackle. Cecilia, my co-service member and I were given 1,000 reasons why increasing kids’ access to fresh, local food wasn’t an option for Springdale. We scheduled a meeting with Springdale’s nutrition director. Everyone told us to prepare for a “no.” Instead we got: “If you can do it yourselves, we don’t mind.” As you can imagine, serving several million school meals a year limits her schedule! (We are so grateful for her!) Before the meeting we didn’t know what farm to school would look like at our sites or even if it was plausible. After the meeting, we decided we would host locally sourced lunches at three schools. If we could come in under budget we could prove that farm to school is a viable option for our district.
To give you a sense of how long a project like this can take: that initial meeting was in September. Our lunch took place on May 30th. I wanted students to feel involved in the process, so after many lessons on Arkansas crops, they had the brilliant idea to serve food from Arkansas in our cafeteria! Now it was not just my vision; it was theirs, too. Together we made a menu out of seasonal food. We moved past our initial dream of a steak dinner and settled on a healthy fiesta theme. We tweaked it to adhere to USDA school lunch regulations.
Cecilia and I spent hours calling farmers to price products. This was as new to us as it was our district. All of the research in the world could not prepare us for the questions we received. Let’s just say, I am now very comfortable admitting when I don’t have the answers. Over the course of three months we secured our vendors. We found beans, organic beef, crisp green lettuce, strawberries, carrots and fresh tortillas, all from Arkansas. Students prepared slideshows and made advertisements for THEIR lunch. Key word “their.” Then, upon receiving a delivery of 150 pounds of carrots, the cafeteria staff said to me, “That lunch is still happening?” In my fear of over communicating about this lunch, I had under communicated. Throughout the rest of the week, Cecilia and I hand-picked 250 pounds of strawberries. We perfected the booty scoot down the strawberry rows, and several labor intensive days later, we walked away with red booties and a 50 cent per pound discount.
Finally, it was Fiesta Friday. Everything that could have gone awry did, including a tornado that affected several of our vendors. The event looked nothing like the Pinterest board I had created, but I would not change a thing about that day. It was delicious. More students and teachers ate lunch than ever before. And we came in 10 cents under the USDA budget, proving farm to school doesn’t have to cost more and can benefit our district.
At times I wanted to give up on the lunch and focus on curriculum and garden engagement. But, there is a reason FoodCorps emphasizes all three pathways to healthier students. Access to healthy food is a measuring tool. Through it I see how my activities have positively altered the eating habits of hundreds of students; I rest better knowing that those little bodies left school more nourished than they came. We, as service members, use teaching (information) and hands-on engagement (garden/cooking classes) all year so that when we hold taste tests, introduce new recipes, or serve new food the students will be more open to trying them. Three months later, I am back for a second year of FoodCorps service. And our Food Service director reached out to ME to source local food for Farm to School Month. We are even purchasing from another FoodCorps school! It turns out that Kindergarten excitement is highly contagious.