Roots and Wings

The compass my parents gave me when I finished college had something written on it that they’d had engraved especially for me. “Roots and Wings”, it said. I hadn’t heard that phrase before, but the many meanings of those words began to resonate with me instantly. Maybe it was subconscious, maybe it was a coincidence, but when I moved to Jackson, Mississippi from New York last September, my bedroom here in my new southern home quickly and organically grew to have a distinct theme of flowers and birds. Roots and wings. It seemed the phrase had stuck.

Another FoodCorps Mississippi service member (who is also now one of my closest friends, like many of the service members have become), told me she had grown up hearing those three words: “Yeah I know that phrase! ‘There are two things we should give our children: one is roots and the other is wings.’” I loved hearing the complete phrase that way. I felt like that’s what my parents had done, and I feel like that’s what I’ve come here with FoodCorps to do — to help kids in Mississippi grow their own roots and wings.

As a FoodCorps service member, hosted by Mississippi Roadmap to Health Equity, I teach kids in West Jackson about what healthy food is and where it comes from, build and tend school gardens where they can grow that healthy food themselves, and try to help school cafeterias serve and celebrate healthy food on the lunch line. I strive to plant seeds of knowledge in my students’ minds, to help them engage with this knowledge and nurture it continually, so that it can grow and take root. As these roots of knowledge absorb more and more information and experiences, my hope is that their knowledge will bloom: that  they will be intrinsically motivated to stay healthy and connected to real food throughout their lifetimes, and see their doing so as an important and achievable goal. Eventually, a flower that has bloomed sends out seeds of its own, almost as if it has grown to have wings (if you have ever seen the wonder in a child’s eyes when they get to the last page of “The Tiny Seed” by Eric Carle, or blow on a dandelion, you have witnessed what I’m trying to describe). And I believe every kid has these wings already, even if they don’t always know it or haven’t had opportunities to spread them.

It can be very difficult not to romanticize the work of FoodCorps, but in my eyes this work is sort of romantic. It is about falling in love. With nature, with soil, with silly songs and dancing, with kids, with the state you’re serving in, with the people you’re surrounded by, and with real food. Sure, there is plenty of red tape in the food system and tons of room for improvement, and there are certainly days as a service member filled with frustration about the public education system, or fire ant bites, or a child in your class misbehaving or disliking a food you’re excited to share with them. And although there are these many setbacks in the neighborhoods I serve in for even the most motivated child or adult to be able to eat enough fruits and vegetables on a regular basis (West Jackson is almost entirely considered a food desert, which I have witnessed firsthand), I believe that part of my responsibility as a service member is to avoid getting overly discouraged. For every discouraging moment, I have easily been able to find ten encouraging and positive ones. The growth we are trying to see requires a lot of patience (just like gardening!), but most kids I have worked with this year are thrilled to go out in the garden, to try new things, to ask brilliant and insightful questions. I think kids naturally want to experience things with all five of their senses, and the garden provides the perfect environment for that.

One huge advantage we have is that the food from a school garden then sort of sells itself. Once you connect kids to a garden and show them how food grows, they are naturally drawn in and interested by the growing process, eager to help plants grow, and curious enough to taste the resulting fruits, veggies and herbs. In fact, I’ve had whole classes beg me to let them eat raw green onions straight out of the ground, or take a bite of raw pumpkin, or chew on all of the mint leaves in sight! People often assume kids won’t want to try new foods or get excited about eating a vegetable, and I like giving my students a chance to prove these people wrong.

Mississippi may have a reputation for being the least healthy state, but I think people’s spirits here are some of the healthiest. It is a natural fit to try and connect kids to real food here, because people here are already so good at connecting to each other. Yes, there are plenty of issues. Yes, racial tension exists. Yes, there is crime. Yes, Jackson has experienced all sorts of deterioration, neglect, and economic flight over the past fifty years. But, since moving here, I have never felt unsafe or pessimistic about Mississippi’s future. I feel invigorated, needed, challenged, and tested, but never truly pessimistic.

In fact, my eyes have been opened to a very hopeful Mississippi, one that is hard to find on a news station or on the internet. One that is full of thoughtful, hard-working people, brilliant artists and progressive politicians, and plenty of people who are here because they believe in a healthier Mississippi and are willing to put in the work to help it get there. I believe the potential is limitless, especially when it comes to this state’s food system. We have fertile soil, a long growing season, amazing gardeners and farmers throughout the state, and kids who – while they and their families don’t often have access to enough real food – are excited to grow it and to try it when it is available to them. I believe Mississippi is full of roots and full of wings.

ImageWhile I hope I am making a real impact and difference here, helping give my students both roots and wings, I also feel grateful for the way that FoodCorps has helped me to grow: to become both more connected to everything in my life, and more aware of my potential. Through the many different forms of training and support I have received, the challenges of my service have become approachable and I have remained excited and optimistic. I feel both supported and free to tailor my service to my strengths, passions, and overall personality (from how I design my school gardens to which lessons I teach my kids). Jackson and Mississippi as a whole – its people, music, traditions, history, progress, and pace of life – have also given me this growth. My own roots and wings have both certainly expanded. And if you come here and witness it all for yourself, you’ll grow in both directions, too.

Interested in becoming a FoodCorps service member? Applications for the 2014-15 service year are open through March 30, 2014. Apply now!