Spring Sampler

It’s been a long time since I blogged, and people have started to notice. “People” being certain members of my family, who last week spontaneously burst out chanting “BLOG BLOG BLOG BLOG” like a bunch of rowdy, blog-thirsty hooligans. (In my defense, I did write a post last month for FoodCorps MS.)  It was also great seeing these weird, wonderful folks in Boulder for Sam’s graduation.

Candid.

Candid. (photo courtesy of Sara Kohn)

 

And I got to see my BFF! She's a smartie in med school.

And I got to see my BFF! She’s a smartie in med school.

 

Spring has been busy, y’all, so I’ll spare you the details and just give some of the highlights. March, April, and May have been full of spring planting and garden celebrations. Recently, I’ve been working with the owners of Foot Print Farms, Dr. Cindy Ayers and her husband Ruben, to get their produce into Magnolia Speech School. Not only are they inspiring mentors for me, but they’ve also been incredibly generous. They helped me build raised garden beds at the school and even brought in a truckload of soil from their farm.

Building the raised beds.

Building the raised beds (April 24)

Fresh red leaf lettuce from Foot Print Farms.

Fresh red leaf lettuce from Foot Print Farms.

 

To celebrate Earth Day, Whole Foods sponsored a garden party at my school! We painted, planted, and ate snacks.

Planting okra, watermelon, and beans. My floppy hat helps me hide my identity.

Planting okra, watermelon, and beans. The floppy hat helps me hide my identity. (photo courtesy of Liz Broussard)

Ms. Jessie

more vegetable stamps

More vegetable stamps (photo courtesy of Liz Broussard)

Kiddo hands + herbs.

Kiddo hands + herbs. (photo courtesy of Liz Broussard)

And in just a month, the garden has grown a ton!

Raised bed gardens and close ups of the cukes. Bottom right is our "Southern 3 Sisters" bed: okra, beans, and watermelon.

Raised bed gardens and close ups of the cukes. Bottom right is our “Southern 3 Sisters” bed: okra, beans, and watermelon.

In other news, roller derby bout season kicked off on April 5 with a home game, and we traveled to Huntsville, AL a few weeks ago for another bout. So far, we’ve lost both our games, but played well and had fun. I love being part of this team of awesome women. I’ve been out for a couple weeks due to a knee injury, but I’ll be back this weekend for our next home game.

Booty blockin'. Photo courtesy of Rhett Amick.

Booty blockin’. Photo courtesy of Rhett Amick.

 

In mid April, I traveled to Austin for FoodCorps midyear gathering and the National Farm to Cafeteria Conference.  This was the most casual conference I have ever attended, but with the coolest group of attendees–farmers, educators, gardeners, chefs, etc. Claire, Rebecca, Mariel, and I stayed a few extra days, which we basically turned into a food-cation.

Members of the Austin High School garden club proudly showing us their school garden. If only I had been so self aware at such a tender age!

Members of the Austin High School garden club proudly showing us their school garden. If only I had been so self aware at such a tender age!

Okay, maybe not the best food photo, but these authentic Mexican food truck tacos were the bomb dot com.

Okay, maybe not the best food photo, but these food truck tacos were the bomb dot com. Also, full disclosure: I was NOT a vegetarian during this week.

 

4 days after we got back, Claire and I drove 6 hours to Nashville, slept 5 hours and then ran the Nashville Rock and Roll Half Marathon.  That may have been a poor choice, but the $100 we paid back in January was non-refundable. Plus, it was kinda fun. Sorry, there is no proof that this actually happened. You’ll just have to believe me.

And since this blog is called Eat. Grow. FERMENT., here are some pictures of foods that are fermentin’ up in here.

On the left: golden beets and purple cabbage with arame (seaweed) and green cabbage with carrots, cumin and caraway seeds, and dried chilis. These were inspired by Hex Ferments in Baltimore and Fermentation on Wheels.

On the left: golden beets and purple cabbage with arame (seaweed) and green cabbage with carrots, cumin and caraway seeds, and dried chilis. These were inspired by Hex Ferments in Baltimore and Fermentation on Wheels.

And we made homemade sourdough pizza crusts at school! We put some fresh herbs from the garden in the dough and on the pizza too. The kids loooved it.

And we made homemade sourdough pizza crusts at school! We put some fresh herbs from the garden in the dough and on the pizza too. The kids loooved it.

 

Thanks for reading, folks! The next time I post, I will have chickens living in my back yard. Stay tuned!

Future chicken home!

Future chicken home!

What’s fermenting in Jackson?

Gallon jars of Fermentation on Wheels kombucha and kimchi.

Gallon jars of Fermentation on Wheels kombucha and kimchi.

Many of those who know me or have lived with me also know my jars of pet SCOBYs (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast) for making kombucha, the smaller, more inconspicuous jars of milk kefir, and the occasional experimental container of bright pink beet kvass or bubbling sourdough starter.

Prepping for a fermentation lesson at a Jackson public school.

Prepping for a fermentation lesson in a Jackson public school garden.

I first started making kombucha with a friend in Madison, WI. I was so sure that I would mess something up, but bacteria is surprisingly hardy. Fermentation, like cooking, is a magical process, but unlike cooking, the fermented product is still living, full of probiotic goodness that aids digestion, the immune system, and overall health and well-being.  Almost as magical as the process of fermentation itself, is the vast community of fermenters across the country who, through the wonders of social media, have been able to connect with one another. This is how I met Tara Whitsitt, the driving force (pun intended) behind Fermentation on Wheels, a community that raises awareness about food sustainability through free fermentation workshops, literature, and visual arts projects.

Checking out some sauerkraut.

Checking out some sauerkraut.

The inside of her converted school bus feels like the cozy kitchen of an artistically-inclined mad scientist. The most impressive installation is a two-tiered hand crafted counter containing cultures in varying stages of ferment. Giant carboys of hand-pressed apple cider bubble away contentedly, mason jars of colorful kimchi sit alongside more jars of sauerkraut, water kefir, milk kefir, and sourdough starter. A cloth covered container of grapefruit sage vinegar rests on top of the counter, respirating in its initial phase of fermentation. The cool thing is that each of these jars contains a story from different stops along the Fermentation on Wheels journey; whether it’s the story of a farmer who grew the vegetables in the sauerkraut, or the pebble-shaped water kefir grains that hail from Tumacacori, AZ.

Sniffing some sourdough starter.

Sniffing some sourdough starter during a lesson on the bus.

Tara initially contacted me because of her interest in FoodCorps. And because her project aligns so well with FoodCorps’ mission of connecting kids with healthy foods, our schools were more than happy to have her lead workshops with the students. The kids (and teachers) were enthralled by the bus and the cultures, which they found strange but also fascinating. Of course, there were plenty of upturned noses at the unfamiliar smells and sights, as well as the occasional “hey, this smells like my dad’s beer!” But one of the most heartwarming moments was when a class of 10 year old boys got to taste some of Tara’s red cabbage sauerkraut. After the first boy tentatively ate a forkful of the kraut, he smiled shyly and said “I actually like this!” to the cheers and applause of his classmates. That prompted each of his peers to also proclaim their love for fermented cabbage amidst more clapping and cheering. This class came away with their own kombucha SCOBY, and another of my classes is now taking care of a Fermentation on Wheels sourdough starter.

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"That looks like an alien baby!" Yes, yes it does.

“That looks like an alien baby!” Yes, yes it does.

Tara also taught a community fermentation workshop at the local Rainbow Natural Grocery Co-op where we made sauerruben from turnips, rutabaga, fresh turmeric, and shallots. Later we feasted on kimchi and krauts, kefir dip, sourdough pizza, and fermented beverages at a small potluck that we hosted at our house.

Chopping rutabagas for sauerruben.

Chopping rutabagas for sauerruben.

It was an inspirational and educational five days. Fermentation on Wheels is an ambitious project that requires dedication, organization, and the ability to work tirelessly. When she wasn’t teaching workshops, Tara was making sourdough bread, feeding her cultures, transferring jars from cooler to fridge, cleaning the bus, answering emails, working on commissioned drawings, restocking her food supply, etc. In my own journey to find a meaningful yet sustainable career, I look to female role models like her who use their knowledge and passion to help mend the fissures in our broken food system.

Cultures, cultures, and more cultures.

Cultures, cultures, and more cultures.

If you’re interested in keeping up with the Fermentation on Wheels adventure, check out their Facebook page. I’ll be helping with grant writing to keep the project going, so if you have any suggestions on where to look for moolah, please let me know! If you’d like to donate to the project, you can do so through Fractured Atlas, the Fermentation on Wheels’ fiscal sponsor.

On spreading the good news…of kale, that is

Greens from the Magnolia garden.

Greens from the Magnolia garden.

One of my mother’s favorite pastimes is getting my stepfather to unknowingly eat his vegetables–and enjoy them. Kale and beets are her current champions, but during summer’s bounty, she’ll creatively experiment with varieties of eggplant, tomatoes, and summer squash. Mom’s surreptitious cooking exploits have slowly chipped away at Cecil’s white-bread-and-bologna upbringing. He now reluctantly eats tofu and vegetable curry, enthusiastically enjoys a bowl of homemade chili (unaware of the finely diced kale and ground beets within), and I even saw him eating the seaweed from his bowl of ramen.

Mom and Cecil, loving husband and culinary guinea pig.

Mom and Cecil, loving husband and culinary guinea pig.

I am my mother’s daughter in a lot of ways, and this is one of them. Once, I brought black bean avocado brownies to an office party, waiting until the entire plate was devoured before revealing the identities of their secret ingredients, to the horror of some of my coworkers.

Garden goofballs.

Some of my favorite garden goofballs.

Although it was tempting, I decided to keep the secret ingredients to a minimum when preparing for our first school garden open house event. With the chaotic energy of the holidays enveloping the school in a Christmas-themed cloud, I thought it appropriate to host a celebration in honor of how far our garden program had come in the past three and a half months. Of course, the ulterior motive was to recruit parent volunteers and co-opt more teachers to the ways of the garden

Central to the occasion was the food, relatively healthy food. Prentiss made a delicious sweet potato cake; I made a salad with quinoa, dried cranberries, and a few pounds of garden fresh collards, kale, and broccoli leaves. And to entertain the Santa-crazed children, I had a craft table set up making holiday-themed potato prints (but actually y’all, this activity is not just for kids).

Lots of good food. And a raw potato, acting as a paperweight.

Lots of good food. And a raw potato, acting as a paperweight.

Potato prints.

Potato printing: surprisingly easy and addictive.

Overall, it was successful. Even though only one parent showed up, there was a good turnout of teachers and staff, a few community members, and all of the Jackson FoodCorps ladies. I especially enjoyed talking to the people who, though initially dubious of the whole “garden business,” were now excitedly asking questions about growing beets and making kale salads. Some of the kiddos picked giant bok choy leaves as party favors, a few of which were devoured before making it into the building.

Potato print champs!

Arts and crafts champs!

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As much as I enjoy manipulating people to eat vegetables, moments like these, when kids (and adults) independently make choices that benefit their health are far more gratifying. I think that allowing kids to make healthy choices on their own is the best way for them to form lasting healthy habits. The key is providing students with the means to make those choices, educating them about food, and encouraging them to step outside their comfort zones.

Eating their greens, and looking into the sun.

Eating our greens and looking into the sun.

It can also mean not being personally offended when an 8 year old sprints to the trash can to spit out that organic, locally grown radish or collapses in dry heaves at the sight of the school compost pile.  Cherishing the small victories are reason enough for me to keep doing what I’m doing. Because witnessing that same radish spitter-outer nibbling on kale stems of his own accord is, to me, on par with any Christmas miracle.

Why “farm to school” isn’t just a buzzword

The trendy “farm to table” movement has often been criticized as elitist or exclusive to hipster foodies who won’t eat chicken at a restaurant unless they see the photos proving that it enjoyed a happy, free range life (Portlandia, anyone?). “Farm to school” may sound similarly trendy, but in Mississippi, serving healthy local products in school meals is more than just a foodie ploy to get kids to eat spaghetti squash (which would be awesome, by the way); it’s key to improving students’ and communities’ health and well-being.

Harvesting kale and collard greens. Look how big those leaves are!

Harvesting kale and collard greens. Look how big those leaves are!

At the 2nd annual Mississippi Farm to Cafeteria Conference this week, my fellow MS FoodCorps service members and I listened to Rose Tate, FoodService Director for the Mound Bayou School District in the MS Delta, recount her reasons for implementing the district’s farm to school program. It started with an elementary school student who suffered from type one diabetes. He would regularly collapse during the school day; the ambulance would often be called, and not surprisingly, his teachers complained of behavioral problems in class. The school nurse and administrators noticed that the child’s diabetic collapses would usually occur right after he ate his school lunch, a meal composed largely of processed, pre-packaged foods and simple carbohydrates like french fries.

Rose knew that something had to be done about the lunch program, especially when she later found out that 60% of the Mound Bayou student population had been diagnosed as “borderline diabetic.” Fearing a health crisis in her schools, Rose worked to bring locally grown fruits and vegetables onto the school lunch line, in addition to replacing all white bread with whole grain. Since then, Bayou Mound School District nurses have seen a dramatic decline in students’ health problems; teachers have noticed an improvement in children’s attention spans and test scores.

So, this is what we eat at Thanksgiving??

So, this is what we eat at Thanksgiving??

Replacing the pre-packaged, nutritionally deficient foods in school lunches (anyone remember those mystery meat chalupas?) with locally grown fruits and vegetables supplies students with the essential nutrition that they need to focus during class, feel good about themselves and grow up healthy, avoiding diseases like adult onset diabetes and obesity. More than that, farm to school programs support the local economy and small family farms.

Hangin' out in the kale forest.

Hangin’ out in the collards forest.

It was inspiring to hear from food service directors like Ms. Tate, as well as growers, non-profit directors, and government officials who are all passionate about serving kids healthy, delicious school meals. These folks’ diverse perspectives led to lively discussions about Mississippi’s nascent farm to school programs, including the obstacles that exist in putting these programs in place.  For one, most small farms can’t afford the safety certifications that many school districts prefer before purchasing produce. There is also the concern that children won’t eat the healthier menu items, and indeed critics have been quick to point out a rise in school lunch waste in schools that have started serving healthier foods. Of course students will balk when they first see a baked sweet potato in place of the french fries they are accustomed to. That’s why farm to school efforts must be accompanied by robust nutrition and garden education programming.

When children see sweet peas growing, when they learn how to cook squash, when they meet the person who grew the apples they eat at lunch, they are more likely to eat the nutritious, but unfamiliar items that show up on the lunch line, not to mention develop long-lasting, healthy relationships with their food. Even in the few months that I’ve been teaching classes, I’ve seen students  progress from refusing to eat an apple with the peel still on it to munching happily on uncooked kale stems.

Full disclosure: they're not going to like everything. This priceless face captured while trying Asian greens salad from the garden.

Full disclosure: they’re not going to like everything. This priceless face captured while trying Asian greens salad with homemade ranch dressing.

That’s why, with our garden education program established and growing, the logical next step is to start serving locally grown fruits and veggies in the cafeteria. My goal for 2014 is to work with the administrators at my school to bring in local products to replace some of the pre-packaged ones they order from a national commercial distributor.  I’m expecting pushback regarding cost, the additional time it will take to get bids from farmers and write up contracts, and the logistics of transportation and delivery, not to mention time and energy required to develop new recipes for menu items. But I think it will be worth it. Being a private non-profit school, we don’t have district-wide contracts in place that bar single schools from being able to change up their menus, so this is the perfect opportunity to pilot a farm to school program on a small scale.

Happy harvesting for a salad lesson.

Happy harvesting for a salad lesson.

Farm to school in Mississippi is not just a fleeting trend, it’s part of a multi-pronged solution to the public health crisis facing our country. It’s also the right thing to do. Access to good food is a basic human right, and teaching the younger generations how to grow up healthy is just as important as teaching them how to solve a quadratic equation. Let’s start by showing them how delicious locally grown sweet potatoes can be.

Gettin’ nippy in ‘Sippi

Fall in the 'Sip. There is a beautiful multi-use path along the Natchez Trace.

Fall in the ‘Sip. There is a beautiful multi-use path along the Natchez Trace.

I remember August 30, 2013 clearly– the humidity steamed up the windows of any air conditioned building, and the hot sun was obscured in a muggy haze.  That was the day the repairman came to our house to check on the gas and told us that our “central heating was in fine working condition.” Central heating? Mississippi? The idea of additional, intentional heat made me want to cry salty, sweaty tears.

Y’all: we switched on that heat over a week ago.  People here started pulling out their leather boots and sweaters when nighttime lows hit the mid 60s. I waited maybe another 5 degrees. Anyways, the point is that to the astonishment of my housemates (who didn’t even pack their coats) and I, Mississippi gets cold. Or, for all of you in actual cold climates, let me rephrase: it gets chilly. And to celebrate the late arrival of these autumnal temps, we threw a backyard housewarming party featuring sweaters, a bonfire, hot cider with whiskey, and this homemade spiced applesauce cake.

FoodCorps JXN gals love free espresso.

FoodCorps JXN gals love free espresso.

The cool weather has been refreshing, though, and it’s certainly made lessons in the garden more enjoyable. For farm to school week, I invited Jonathan Picarsic, gardener and owner of the local farm Amorphous Gardens, to come visit the school. It was a bigger hit than I expected; the kids adored the turkey and chickens that he brought, and it gave everyone an opportunity to check out our growing garden.  The day after Jonathan came to the school, I asked my 6 year old class what their favorite part of the farm visit was. One little girl blurted out “the pigs!!!” (There were no pigs.) Small steps, people.

Jonathan and the turkey. (Ssshhh, don't tell anyone that she'll be eaten in a few weeks)

Jonathan and the turkey. (Ssshhh, don’t tell anyone that she’ll soon be eaten)

Soft little chick. Check out our greens in the background!

Soft little chick. Check out our greens growing in the background!

Hi, little guy.

Hi little guy.

In addition to some overly creative imaginations, my youngest class is by far the most adventurous in terms of eating. In preparation for our farm to school visit, I had bought a box of Amorphous Gardens produce that contained some beautiful leafy kale, lemon basil, green onions, radishes, and different heirloom varieties of mustard greens. I used the greens in a simple kale salad, and had different toppings, or “pizzaz,” for the 6 year olds to add themselves. When I brought the salad into the classroom, the teacher looked at me incredulously and asked: “Do you actually eat that stuff?!” Oh, if only she could see what goes on in our kitchen at home….but that’s another story. To my surprise and the teacher’s, the students devoured their salads, even though their eyes widened in spicy surprise when they tasted the radishes.

My oldest class isn’t quite as brave when it comes to trying new things, but they’re definitely getting there. The Asian greens and lettuce that we planted over a month ago is ready to cut, so tomorrow we’ll be making a salad together in the garden.

And I’m giving in (kind of) to the popular request: “Can we have ranch?” We’ll be making our own healthy version! [insert evil healthy food laugh]

The cutest combination: kids+vegetables

From top left: fall vegetable transplants, tire herb garden, cardboard weed suppressant in the pumpkin patch, rosemary in bloom.

From top left: fall vegetable transplants, tire herb garden, cardboard weed suppressant in the pumpkin patch, rosemary in bloom.

After about 5 weeks, I feel like the garden education program at my school is finally starting to take off. Teachers and staff know and recognize me, I work steadily with 2 classrooms (hopefully adding more soon!) plus some music classes, and the garden is *mostly* planted and growing.  Last week Prentiss and I planted our fall/winter transplants: collard greens (a Southern staple), kale, broccoli, cauliflower, red cabbage, brussels sprouts, and spinach. On Wednesday, my oldest class helped us plant. I showed them how to gently loosen the roots before putting the plants in the ground and covering them fully with healthy black top soil.

Planting seed tapes.

Planting seed tapes.

Watching how much pride and care each student displayed in handling their plants made me aware of how often adults, including me, underestimate children’s ability to successfully take on responsibility. I’ve noticed this in terms of eating too. A teacher will say “Oh, Daniel would never touch a vegetable,” yet when Daniel learns about the vegetable and helps prepare it, he’ll eat it, leaving his teach flabbergasted.  I’m excited to take on more challenging lessons  with my classes that empower them to try new things.

Nature bracelets, pea shoots, and pumpkin seeds.

Nature bracelets, pea shoots, and pumpkin seeds.

One of my favorite lessons so far was making a “roots, fruits, and leaves slaw” with red cabbage, carrots, apples, and raisins.  We had just learned about the six different plant parts, so this lesson was meant to tie in that concept while encouraging the kids to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables. The students helped cut and spiralize our ingredients, prepare the dressing, and then taste the fruits (and veggies) of their labor.

Mixing the salad dressing. Cool layers!

Mixing the salad dressing. Cool layers!

A month ago, this activity would have probably been accompanied by a chorus of “nasty!” and “yuck!,” but throughout the whole class kids were covertly tasting pieces of cabbage and apple peels. Almost all of them finished their entire bowls of slaw. The only negative comment came from one student who exclaimed “this smells like an armpit!” But then I realized…cabbage does kind of smell like  an armpit.

Crunchin' on some roots, fruits, and leaves.

Crunchin’ on some roots, fruits, and leaves.

Other activities have included making “nature bracelets” with painter’s tape and wildflowers, planting seeds, smelling herbs, measuring the heights of various sprouts, and singing songs about dirt. I’ve also been coordinating with a farmer friend to come to my school later this week to talk to the students about how he grows vegetables and raises animals. He’ll even be bringing some of his silky chickens for the kids to hold and touch. On Saturday, I stopped by the farmers’ market to pick up a big box of his produce so that I can do taste testings ahead of time with the kids. I want them to make the connection between the vegetables and the person who grows them. I’m really going to have to get creative, though; most of the vegetables in season now are varieties of mustard greens, herbs, and radishes, which, while beautiful and tasty, may be a bit of a stretch for some of the students’ palates. BUT, never underestimate, right?

Showing off our nature fashion accessories.

Showing off their nature fashion accessories.

Delta and Derby Adventures

Although I’ve only been in Jackson for just over a month, I already feel strangely at home here–like  buying a new pair of shoes that are somehow perfectly broken in. It does help that the city is small (or smallish), that I’m an adaptable person, and that I live with two amazing FoodCorps gals that match my enthusiasm for cooking, composting and kimchi.

FoodCorps MS gals. Claire, on the far left is one of my housemates.

FoodCorps MS represent. These ladies like dirt too.

And luckily, my effort to try new things and meet new people has been exponentially rewarded by the Mississippi universe.

Two weekends ago, I went up to the Delta with some friends to see a blues festival in Greenville whose motto is: “Da Blues Is Like Comin’ Home.” Like any good music festival, it was a day of relaxing on the lawn, drinking PBR (although most of the locals were drinking Bud Light…), and getting serenaded by some talented musicians. Unlike your typical music festival, these musicians included Bill “Howl-n-Madd” Perry, a blind, gravelly voiced guitar player, Sweet Angel, whose booming voice and soulful tunes were dripping with innuendos (she also played the saxophone, if you know what I mean), and Bobby Rush, who performed in a shiny 70s-style salmon-hued suit accompanied by some curvaceous back-up dancers aka “booty rollers.”  If you want a taste of Mr. Rush, check out this video (depending on where you work, may be NSFW).

Friends, the main stage, bbq vendors, and the local stage at the Delta Blues Festival.

Friends, the main stage, bbq vendors, and the local stage at the Delta Blues Festival.

This particular slice of the Delta and the blues culture was so fascinating. There was an intricate balance of raw talent–even among the local groups–and highly sexualized showmanship. While it was refreshing to see curvy women appreciated for their bodies, there was also an uncomfortable level of sexism and degradation (again, please reference the Bobby Rush video). But, being an outsider, I did my best to  just live it without the pretense of understanding.

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As a lot of you know, my housemate Claire and I started playing roller derby a few weeks ago for the Magnolia Roller Vixens. We definitely don’t qualify as B.A.s yet since we still have to get good enough to pass a minimum skills test, but skating and learning the moves is a great workout and so much fun. The women on the team range from ages 20s to 40s; a handful of them have kids. All of them have been extremely welcoming and generous with their knowledge. It feels good to join a community of strong, motivated women, who don’t take no sh** from nobody!

We judged a chicken contest at the Homestead Center. The competition was tough.

We judged a chicken contest at the Homestead Center. The competition was tough.

Also, this past weekend was our Mississippi state-wide orientation. All of the service members, our fellow and the host site supervisor gathered at the Homestead Center in Starkville for a weekend of cooking, farm to school information sharing, and farm tours hosted by the Mississippi Sustainable Agriculture Network (MSAN). If you’re interested, this article written about the tours on Sunday gives more information about MSAN and the fantastic work they do in Mississippi.

Enjoying some *unhealthy* but delicious 'Sippi bbq in Starkville. Fried green tomatoes and blackened catfish....yes please.

Enjoying some *unhealthy* but delicious ‘Sippi bbq in Starkville. Fried green tomatoes and blackened catfish….yes please.

Since this is already a lengthy post about my life outside of school, my next post will be more focused on my FoodCorps service:  what’s been going on with my school garden, new connections with local farmers, and the latest classroom cooking adventures.

Big soul, little city

Is it cliche to say that Jackson is full of surprises and contradictions? Well, I apologize a million times, but it’s true. This city buzzes with the energy, talent, and creative drive of any large urban center, but it’s tempered by small town charm and the feeling that everybody knows everybody.

And the surprises?  Hip hop here is darn good.  Friday night we went to a benefit concert in the back lot of a self-identified “modern day juke joint” where I was blown away by the talent of the local hip hop artists.  There was a distinctly Southern flavor in the way their raps mixed pride for their Mississippi roots, love for family and community, and biting criticisms of modern inequality in the South.  If you want to hear an example, check out Mr. Franklin aka Kamikaze. There was also a killer brass band called Southern Komfort, and a lot of talented DJs, one of whom also happens to be a city councilman. And true to Jackson form, when we left, the bartender gave us a hug.

Fresh ideas in JXN.

Fresh ideas in JXN.

In other news, despite some initial confusion and skepticism, I’ve found a few strong allies in the teachers and faculty at my school who care deeply about healthy eating and outdoor education. Five teachers so far have shown interest in having me teach in their classes; I’ll be starting with two classes next week as well as working with the music teacher. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a great start and I’m optimistic that more teachers will be open to working with me once word spreads and the garden starts growing.

You can't see it yet, but that's going to be a school garden.

You can’t see it yet, but that’s going to be a school garden.

Speaking of gardening, last week Prentiss and I staked out the garden plots to prepare for tilling tomorrow. Since the majority of children at the school are hearing or speech impaired, we are building a sensory garden, moving away from the traditional boxiness of raised beds toward a more free-flowing permaculture design.  We went to the salvage yard yesterday to get some up-cycling inspiration. I’m going to scavenge for used wine bottles in order to make a whimsical pathway, kind of like this. We also found some old car tires that we’ll use as herb containers.

P.S.  And guess what? I’m joining the Jackson roller derby team. Roller derby name suggestions are more than welcome!!

Juice. It’s what’s for snack.

Ok, first off I have to admit: I think that “y’all” is definitely superior to “you guys.” It’s gender neutral, and there are fewer syllables. The South is definitely on to something.

Also, there are so many things I’d like to write about! Like Mississippi roller derby, awesome organic vegetable and herb farms in the Delta, backyard jazz concerts, goat milk ice cream, guerrilla pothole fillers, and physical confrontations witnessed outside of the  Department of Human Services. If you have any questions about Jackson, FoodCorps, cockroaches, or anything else, feel free to ask me about it in the comments! But since this is mainly my FoodCorps-related blog, I want to share some successes, challenges, and goals from my first week of service (in FoodCorps we say “serve” not “work”).

Thinking outside the juice box

My site supervisor, Prentiss,  a spunky young mother of four with a wealth of knowledge about farming, apiary, and nutrition, got us started with a bang. She brought her juicer to the school, and we set up in teacher’s kitchen, juicing apples, carrots, celery, spinach, lemon, lime, and ginger. Originally, we were just going to go around to the teachers and administrators with some juice samples, but a couple of the teachers were intrigued and decided to bring their classes in to participate. The next couple hours turned into impromptu smell and taste tests where students tried to guess what the vegetable or fruit was using all their senses–touching and smelling the pulp and comparing the colors of juice.  For the older kids, the teachers and I tried to get them to use different adjectives to describe their sensory perceptions. They were a little squeamish at first…because “eeew vegetables!” but they quickly became intrigued. One little blonde girl coughed and wrinkled her nose at all the vegetables, but by the end of the activity, she had quietly swallowed all her apple-carrot-lemon juice down to the last drop!  The teachers loved it too.

Fitting in

It’s funny how quickly my thinking has moved from the abstract macrocosm of FoodCorp’s pillars of “Knowledge, Engagement, and Access” down to the minutiae of the cafeteria schedule, whether to use “Ms.” when talking to the principal, where to get a bucket to start composting kitchen scraps, etc., etc. For example, I’m still decoding the informal pecking order of the school while trying to grasp the norms and relationships that are unique to any organizational culture. The juicing activity apparently broke some of these rules because of its impromptu nature. And since this school is a new service site, most teachers and staff didn’t even know what I was doing at the school or that I would be there all year. I’ve been doing a lot of ‘splainin’ this first week and, to be honest, the reactions have been mixed. Some people are just resistant to change. I will woo those people over to my side with baked treats like these.

Impatiens is a flower, not a virtue

One of the other challenges I’m working around is my school’s lack of a garden budget. But today my amazing host site supervisor, Willie decided to help me out and took me on a shopping trip to the local nursery/hardware store to get transplants, seeds, and tools. On the way there, I confessed to him that I was getting impatient. I wanted everything to be instantly functional and great. He laughed and said that impatience is a common problem for a lot of service members who come to Mississippi.  I have to remind myself that the most sustainable kinds of change are the ones that progress slowly, growing deep roots before they branch out for the world to see.  [Insert more dorky plant metaphors here.]

So I guess I’ll leave you with my goals for this week: 1) create my class schedule with the teachers, 2) clean out the  school’s tool shed and taking inventory, 3) start the compost, and 4) break ground (literally) on the new gardens. Prentiss and I have some cool ideas for a pumpkin patch, an herb garden, and some vine vegetables along a bleak stretch of chain link fence. I’ll keep y’all posted.

All moved in!…well, sorta

Reason #28 not to accumulate stuff: it all must fit in the Prius.

Reason #28 not to accumulate lots o’ stuff: it all must fit in the Prius.

18 hours after leaving Washington DC, past the blue hills of Virginia, through Knoxville, Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, and innumerable Cracker Barrels, my mom and I tumbled out of the jam-packed Prius onto the parking lot of Jackson, Mississippi’s very own Marriott Courtyard.

And thus commenced 3 consecutive days of the mind-numbing yet requisite chores that come with moving to any new place–finding a mattress, activating the utilities, unpacking stuff, cleaning (and I mean CLEANING), garage sale-ing, Craigslist-ing, and running between Salvation Army and Target for all the boring necessities (like Pinesol and trash bags). Ok fine, I’ll spare you the details. All I have to say about those three days is: bless my mom’s little heart. Without her help I probably would still be biking up highway 55 to Bed Bath and Beyond to get sheets.

My roommate is cool--she makes her own pickles. Also, a lone dining room table, a cool consigned chair, and some okra.

My roommate is cool–she makes her own pickles. Also, a lone dining room table, a cool consigned chair, and some okra.

My new place is actually pretty interesting. It’s a Sears house that was built in 1939, with wood floors, high ceilings, and a myriad of random rooms that will be empty for the foreseeable future due to the fact that my roommates and I have no furniture.  Compared to my “English basement” apartment in DC ( just get over yourself, DC, and call it a basement), this 3 bedroom house is GINORMOUS. And it comes with a big weedy backyard, a haunted attic, a mysterious fire place, and a slightly swampy smell. Did I say it’s also charming?

Throwback to the 1950s.

Throwback to the 1950s.

The house is in Fondren, a quirky, artsy neighborhood of Jackson. If you’ve seen The Help (which I still haven’t), you’d recognize a lot of familiar sights. State Street, the main drag, is lined with pastel colored shops reminiscent of the 1950s. Brent’s Drugs Soda Fountain (also featured in The Help) still has its authentic Elvis-blue vinyl covered booths. But as my mom and I discovered, Fondren also has a pretty good selection of good, modern, and not-fried food, like Mississippi’s only vegetarian restaurant. We ate there three times in four days.

Other unexpected Jackson highlights have included a community bike ride with 40 other Jackson bikers, an intimate tour of Eudora Welty’s home led by one of her former writing students, and a hand-delivered letter and personal welcome from my mailman (indicative of how friendly people are here).

Eudora Welty lived and wrote here 'til she was 91.

Eudora Welty lived and wrote here ’til she was 91.

And here are a couple “lowlights” to balance out my cloying optimism: realizing that my 6.5 mile daily commute to Magnolia Speech School is not bike friendly. The roads here are poorly maintained, and people don’t really know how to drive with bikes on the road. Also cockroaches. I told my landlord that I had seen a couple of cockroaches in the kitchen and his response was: “they make great fishing bait.” Y’all cockroaches are part of the reality here.

Cockroaches and non-existent bike lanes aside, I’m liking this place. So far I’ve had great chats with my supervisors. And today I checked out the awesome farmer’s market and spoke with some local farmers about sourcing their produce to my school. Tonight I’m going to a Blues and Barbeque competition in downtown Jackson.

And then I officially start work on Wednesday!