FoodCorps National Orientation in Portland

Field trip! FoodCorps Service Members touring a Portland public school garden.

Field trip! FoodCorps Service Members touring a Portland public school garden.

Last Sunday, I arrived at Lewis and Clark College along with 124 other bright-eyed, jet lagged, (mostly) 20-something FoodCorps service members. It felt a bit like going through freshman orientation at college all over again, especially since we were staying in the dorms. However, unlike college orientation where most people are still figuring out their values and interests, everyone at the orientation was clearly passionate about creating a just, sustainable food system centered around healthy food.  Many service members have already been involved in farming and farm education–through WWOOFing, experiential education programs, or by growing up on their own family farms. Others have taught kids–both in and out of the garden–or served in PeaceCorps or AmeriCorps.

I got back to DC last night with my brain (and suitcase) saturated with tons of information, tools, and inspiration from last week. There are so many things I’d love to share, but here are a just a few of the highlights from orientation this past week:

1. Connecting with the rest of the FoodCorps Mississippi team!

I got to meet and hang out with the 9 other Mississippi service members and our state fellow. What a fun and capable group of people! Half of our team members are from Mississippi, so they are deeply familiar with the growing seasons, the school systems, the culture, and many of the challenges that the state faces. The rest of us come from Oregon, Alabama, New York, Colorado (moi!), North Carolina, and New Hampshire. We’ll be spread out across Mississippi from Jackson to the Delta to the coast, so it was nice to have this chance to connect in one place. We’ll meet up again in a few weeks for our statewide orientation. By the way, if you haven’t “liked” the FoodCorps MS Facebook page, you definitely should! Our state fellow, Liz, will be updating it with our stories and photos throughout the year.

The Mississippi FoodCorps team. Ain’t we adorable?

2. Gardening with Kids 101 and Cooking with Kids 101 

We had some awesome trainers from Life Lab, an experiential classroom farm/garden in California, to teach us the basics of gardening with kids (think classroom management plus the added challenge of garden tools and mud). The service members got to be the kids for the day; we helped build a “pizza garden,” a raised circular garden divided into pizza-like slices and planted with herbs and vegetables that can be used as pizza toppings.

My favorite training session had to be Cooking with Kids 101 with Lola Bloom, a co-founder of City Blossoms in DC. She talked about her experience gardening and cooking with kids and communities in DC. Yes, it is possible for kids to chop vegetables with sharp knives! As a hands-on activity, we broke up into teams to make variations on Lola’s famous kale salad. I got the chance talk with Lola at dinner one night about building gardens for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) since some of the kids I’ll be serving at Magnolia Speech School have ASD. She gave me some great ideas of creating “safe spaces” in the garden where children can feel secluded and cozy while still being part of the class.

Adding pizzaz to kale salad during Cooking with Kids 101.

Adding pizzaz to kale salad during Cooking with Kids 101.

3. Eating.

Oh FoodCorps, you spoiled us. All week we had locally sourced, sustainably raised food catered by Bon Appétit Management Company. Curry with tofu, sustainably caught fish with farro risotto, marionberry pancakes with lavender whipped cream, etc. etc. for three meals a day. And each day, they brought in a guest, including a local farmer that grew some of the food, one of their chefs, and a representative from Bob’s Red Mill, to talk to us about what we were eating and the importance of sourcing local products. It was foodie heaven-on-earth for all of us food geeks gathered there.

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After hearing so much about what is WRONG with our system, our country, and despairing at the overwhelming pervasiveness of fast food, the obesity epidemic, and food deserts, it was uplifting to hear about what we can and will be doing to work, albeit slowly, towards a solution. After an intense week of learning, I’ll be spending my last six days in DC packing and saying goodbye to friends (*tear*). My next post will likely be from Jackson, MS!

Is FoodCorps a government program? And other questions…

I got back from my whirlwind Colorado adventure Wednesday night. Now I just have some laundry to do, paperwork to fill out, and people to see before jumping on a plane to Portland on Sunday morning for FoodCorps’ week-long orientation. … Continue reading

Back in Boulder

Boulder, sweet Boulder.

Boulder: land of dreadlocks, perfectly pulled espresso shots, cycling, and recycling.

 

I’m back in Colorado for the first time since I graduated college in May 2011.  I’ve been hiking, seeing friends and family, and enjoying the novelty of 0-5% humidity (I forgot that sweat can actually dry!). Maybe it’s because I’ve been removed from the city for a couple years, but Boulder somehow seems even more green and hippie-friendly than I remember. My fermented foodie dream came true when I discovered that they have kombucha on tap at the local Whole Foods (the flavor of the day was “wild root”). Sam and I also enjoyed yerba mate and vegan carob chip cookies at the Yellow Deli, a restaurant owned and operated by an obscure religious sect. Needless to say, Birkenstocks, Tevas, and Chacos abound.

Unsurprisingly, food activism thrives here in Boulder. Through a mutual friend, I met one of the founders of Boulder Food Rescue, an incredibly forward-thinking non-profit that redistributes food “waste” to homeless and low-income populations. But even in this seemingly hyper-aware and informed city, there is a long way to go to creating a completely sustainable food system.  What does this mean for Mississippi?

For one, I’m sure Mississippians won’t have the haughty–and often hypocritical–attitude of many Boulderites when it comes to lifestyle choices. But at the same time, I wonder how receptive Mississippians will be when it comes to making dietary changes that incorporate more whole, healthy foods. Rebecca Rosenthal (check out her FoodCorps blog here), a fellow Jackson FoodCorps service member and one of my future housemates (!!), puts it perfectly:

“When you know first-hand the dramatic benefits of eating a consistently healthy whole foods diet, it’s easy to fall into “preaching” these habits to other people without any concept of reality or of other people’s preferences and needs.”

Like Rebecca, I want to avoid being preachy. But as a newcomer to the South, how can I adapt my teaching plans and my own understanding of health to Southern culture and attitudes while also accounting for Jackson’s distinct socio-economic reality? I have a lot to learn, and I’m hoping that the FoodCorps Orientation which I’ll be attending in Portland in about a week and a half will answer a lot of my questions. I will definitely be posting about that later!

In the meantime, I still have about a week left in Colorado, leaving me plenty of time for more vegan treats, fermented effervescent drinks, mountains, and thin, dry air.

Hikin' in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Hikin’ in Rocky Mountain National Park.

You’re moving where?!

greetings-from-jackson-mississippi

Greetings from Jackson, y’all.

I get so many different reactions when I tell people I’m moving to Mississippi. Most of them fall within the spectrum of the polite “nod and smile” and the “wait…WHAT?!” One of my co-workers who had driven through the South as a long-haired hippie in the ’70s told me to be careful, “especially with your hair.” I don’t blame the skeptics. Mississippi has its fair share of issues: it’s the state with the highest rates of obesity and diabetes. Mississippi also spends less per student on education than all but four other states. And then there’s the persisting legacy of slavery and segregation and the puritanical, conservative politics that scare many a bleeding heart liberal like myself.

I’m the first to admit that I didn’t think I would ever actually live south of the Mason Dixon line for all the reasons mentioned above. When I applied to FoodCorps, my first choice was Boston, MA. I played roulette with my second two choices, checking the box that said “I’ll go anywhere.” When FoodCorps notified me that I had made the first cut for Mississippi, my initial reaction was relief (I passed the first round!) then fear (Mississippi? The South?) then acceptance (dude, you can do this), and then wholehearted enthusiasm and genuine excitement.

I didn’t apply to FoodCorps to work with people that think the same way as me. And I don’t intend to proselytize people like some eat-more-local-vegetables evangelist. I subscribe to FoodCorps’ mission which is to give all youth an enduring relationship with healthy food. What better place to teach kids about healthy food, build school gardens, and bring high quality local food into school cafeterias than Mississippi? Obviously, there is a need for some serious food system reform, but there is also growing momentum that surrounds health and food activism in the Magnolia State. Organizations like the Mississippi Roadmap to Health Equity and the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives, along with the Healthy Students Act and the Move to Learn Initiative passed by the state government are fomenting real change. According to the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation, childhood obesity in MS dropped by about 13% from 2006 to 2011. The Mississippi Delta, one of the poorest areas of the US, is also one of its most fertile agricultural regions. Many Mississippians remember a time, just decades ago, when local produce and home gardens were abundant. Like seedlings pushing their pale green heads out of the soil, things are really starting to move and change. I can’t wait to be a part of it.

On top of that that, I’m looking forward to being in a part of the country known for its hospitality, slower pace of life, good music, and good food. I’ve already had friends from Mississippi connect me via email with their family members in the area, or give me recommendations of good realtors, places to live, yoga studios to frequent. I’m constantly reminded by articles like this one that Jackson (or JXN) is a spunky, funky town filled with old school charm. When I lived in Madison, WI, I grew an unexpectedly profound admiration and appreciation of the midwest. I’m sure the same thing will happen in the South.

Life is like a thrift store

The past two years since graduating college have been a journey in self discovery. Very few things in my life have remained constant—I’ve lived in 6 different houses/apartments in three different states, worked in restaurants, cafes, and offices, considered various life paths (from grad school to WWOOFing to starting a kefir ice cream business (more on that later)), found new friendships, lost touch with others, etc..

One thing, however, that has remained constant during the past decade of my life is my love of thrift stores. And I’ve realized that a lot of life lessons can be learned from thrift stores.

Lesson #1: It’s easier to find things you don’t like. Sweat-stained “Turkey Trot ‘97″ t-shirts, pleated khaki shorts, and pink ceramic soap dishes predominate. But then, hidden at the back of the clothes rack, you see it: that gently worn studded leather biker jacket for only $7.50. And just in time for Halloween. In work, relationships, and life in general, it’s easier to recognize what you don’t like or don’t want to do. And that’s important. But it’s that rare semi-hidden gem that inspires passion, love, or enthusiasm that you need to snatch up without hesitation. Especially if it’s 50% off.

Lesson #2: Don’t buy it just because it’s cheap. You and I both know those thrift store n00bs who leave GoodWill with armloads of crapola that will only end up collecting dust in their basements within weeks. I hate to say it, but Macklemore is a major culprit (“They had a broken keyboard. I bought a broken keyboard”). In the thrift shop of life, you must “know thyself.” Don’t buy something or do something just because you can. The opportunities most worth pursuing often require the greatest investment of time and energy, and sometimes money.  In the long run, being picky pays off.

Lesson #3: There is no rhyme or reason. Yes, some thrift stores are more organized, cleaner, less disgusting than others. But the basic principle of “second hand” remains the same: you never know what’s going to come next.  You can organize the chaos, but you can never really control it. Embrace the entropy.

And obviously, there are many, many more delightful lessons to be learned from the humble thrift store. But I’ll leave with that for now.