In every community there are always people who are trying to change things. But there are a lot more folks who want things to stay just as they are. And that makes change difficult to make. For the past year I’ve been trying to make change in my in a rural school district’s food environment. But the phrase “making change” isn’t quite right. At least when we’re talking about changing peoples, their lifestyles, and how they view and value their surroundings. No one makes change. At least not lasting change. Rather, they influence change.
That is why the role of a FoodCorps service member is a challenging position: because you are trying to make, or influence, change in a school system and culture that has been developing for decades. In just one year it is sometimes difficult to quantify and clarify what exact change you made. Whether it was changing a forgotten and dilapidated parking lot into a garden, changing canned fruit option to fresh chopped veggies at the school cafeteria, or changing the mind of a resilient youngster who had a bad experience with grilled eggplant. Real, lasting change takes time and intention. And it often starts small and grows with time. One tiny grain of sand caught in an oyster, will wrestle and grind its way over years into a pearl.
After a year of teaching, it is my belief that anyone who is trying to make change in the minds of others, especially children, starts out with one agenda, and ends up accomplishing something much different. I came into my service site in the rural foothills of California expecting to whip the school district into shape. Maybe develop a large scale composting system for each cafeteria, start a district wide school garden CSA, invite farmers and cooks from across the county to visit our schools, and have Michelle Obama help massage Waldorf Kale Salad in our middle school Home Ec. Room. Yet at the end of my year of service, what I accomplished is much different than what I had dreamed of. I realize that the single most important thing that I did, was take that grain of sand in the oyster and begin to rub it, continuously. What I mean to say is, I’ve helped nurture and nudge gardening and healthy eating just a bit deeper into the culture of the students and community in my school district.
Culture is a difficult thing to affect intentionally. For I see culture as the accumulation of habits, experiences, and environments of a community of people over time. Real culture takes time to create, and it takes time to change. Today my class of second graders we reflected on what they ate in the cafeteria. Many students ate a hot lunch of canned peaches in syrup, canned corn, corndog for protein and grains, and milk. I’m not that old, but that exactly what was being served when I was in second grade two decades ago. And I’m sure that’s what some of their parents still eat, and that’s what might be frozen for microwave dinner tonight.
A century ago in the foothills of the Mother Lode, almost every family farmed or gardened, and the father would dig for gold, or make a living off those who’d come here to do so. Three centuries ago, Thomas Jefferson called the farmer the backbone of the American democratic society. But today less than two percent of the American population make a living as farmers, and even gardening has slipped away from American culture. The average age of a farmer is 56 years old. Farming has become so rare, that we have this new niche called agrotourism, where urban and suburban folks can come to the country to nostalgically appreciate the family farm. One of the scariest and most common phrases I hear my students say is, “Yeah! I know how to Garden! My Grandma has a garden and I help her.” Holy cow. What if this movement had arrived a generation later? Then there would be no grandmas or grandpas left gardening, for I rarely hear that proclamation about the child’s own parent. Yet this movement of gardeners, teachers, farmers, chefs, and entrepreneurs across the country, that FoodCorps is a part of, has come just in time.
Its funny how the students with some remote tie to farming or gardening, are the ones who really thrive in the garden. Three of my most avid gardeners have parents who grew up on a farm. One kindergartener, who suffers severely from Turrets and can barely string 5 words together in a minute, is the best 5-year old gardener we’ve got. He just gets out of the classroom and into the dirt, and everything makes sense for a little while. Just last week at Open House, his Dad was proud to here that, and shared that he himself grew up on a corn farm in Iowa. The kids didn’t experience any farming growing up, but it is heavy in their genes and in the collective American consciousness.
Another accidental experience I’ve given children, is just introduce them to vegetables that they were either clueless to or disgusted by. As FoodCorps service members and novice teachers, we’ll come to class in the garden with one lesson, and end up teaching another. Last month, I wanted so much for my second grade students to understand photosynthesis and the role of leaves. Yet what they really took away, save for a select few, was that when you cook that bitter chard and kale with fat red onions and soy sauce… it’s good! At the middle school I cook and garden with the Special Needs class every Thursday. There is an overweight kid with Down syndrome named Jacob, who has to be accompanied by an aid everywhere he goes. He can barely write a correct sentence, or do almost any garden chore. Yet every time I take his class out, I just have him sit by his favorite plant, the Kale, and he plucks of leaf after leaf and gobbles it down. I’ll ask him if the Kale is still good and he’ll nod his head vigorously and flash a big smile of braces stuck with green bits of leaf, framed by a green kale-juice mustache.
At one of the five schools I teach at, that grain of sand that I helped plant has been rubbed raw. A team of 40 parents built a school garden this spring of 8 raised beds located right smack in the middle of campus on an old irrigated lawn. A third grade teacher’s flexibility allowed me to take her class out to the garden to plant 15 squash plants that a local farmer donated. Each pair of students named their squash, and chose humorous and imaginative names such as “Green Death Squash,” Sasquash” and the witty and biblical “Squashua.”
I don’t know if it was the organic happy Frog fertilizer that I overdressed the plants with, or the fact that they’d be birthed and weathered in a farmer’s greenhouse a mile away, but those plants grew to be verdant bursting bushes in less than a month. They truly are the pride of the school, and each day the teachers and parents come to marvel at the squash, and the third graders routinely check on the growth of squash progeny. This Tuesday, for the last day of school, we’ll harvest the first fruits of our labor, and grill up the squash, and dash it with some school-made pesto from our basil plants. While I didn’t build an outdoor kitchen and establish a weekly garden club at the school, two hundred kids will get to taste grilled squash from a campus that only produced grass as of last year, and I can guarantee that three quarters will like it and be proud of it. For what we are doing is not only introducing these kids to growing and enjoying new foods, but we we are helping to create a value for gardening, and real food. They’ve soon realized the time and energy it takes to grow food, and have experienced the unforgettable sensation of tasting your first fruit from the garden.
So as I look at the numbers from this year. The number of pounds of produce we harvested. The number of recipes I introduced in the school cafeteria, the number of farmers the school district sourced food from; it is relatively little. What I did do, was provide an opportunity for these students to have an experience with gardening and food, and maybe even develop a slight understanding of it, an understanding that has nearly disappeared from our culture in the last fifty years.
At my last day at a school way up in the boonies of the sierras we held our first school garden farmers market. We had some stunted, aphid-infested cabbages, robust and proud yellow onions, holy rainbow chard, and kale, all spindly plants that we yanked out to be replaced by summer crops. The five students and I set out shop outside of the school, located in a town, elevation 2,200 feet, population 350. It was the first farmers market those students had ever held, and I had to use all my energy just to keep them from hollering at the top of their voices “fresh onions!” and “buy food” at ever car that passed. As the kindergartener held up her sign scribbled “Farmer Markit” in crayon, above her head, and hollered “fresh food!”, I couldn’t help wonder what I actually taught her today. But I do know I helped plant that grain of sand in her mind that may grow to shape her understanding and appreciation of gardening and food for the rest of her life.