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!

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!

IMG_2895

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.

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.

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.

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!