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.

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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!