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FoodCorps marks first year

At Oak Hill Elementary School in High Point, third graders have spent time this year learning how to plant a garden, harvest the plants and eat what they grow. The school is one of five FoodCorps sites in Guilford County where FoodCorps service member Leah Klaproth has worked with students and teachers since the beginning of the 2011-12 school year.

As classes were winding down for the year in late May, Klaproth helped students in Sabrina Peacock’s class to harvest some of the crops from their garden. Klaproth reminded the students how they had planted the potatoes with pieces of seed potato. Then students took turns harvesting greens and digging potatoes for a local food pantry, supported by Share the Harvest.

Since August 2011, N.C. State University, N.C. 4-H and the Center for Environmental Farming Systems have hosted six FoodCorps service members, serving eight counties: Brunswick, Gaston, Guilford, Moore, New Hanover, Wake, Warren and Wayne. The service members, like Klaproth, serve in local schools to conduct nutrition education, engage students in building and tending school gardens and expand access to local, fresh produce in school cafeterias.

In September, “NBC Nightly News” featured a story on North Carolina’s FoodCorps program, including interviews with service member Sebastian Naskaris and program coordinator Liz Driscoll, Cooperative Extension 4-H specialist in crops, horticulture and soils.

FoodCorps is a non-profit national service organization that seeks to reverse the effects of childhood obesity by increasing vulnerable children’s knowledge of, engagement with and access to healthy food. The Corporation for National and Community Service awarded $625,000 to support 50 AmeriCorps members this year to serve 42 FoodCorps sites across the country. AmeriCorps public service program recruited young leaders for a year of service in limited-resource communities experiencing a high incidence of diet-related disease.

In North Carolina, program coordinators include Driscoll and Tes Thraves, youth food systems coordinator for the Center for Environmental Farming Systems. Driscoll and Thraves recently met with N.C. FoodCorps service members and state advisory council members as the school year was drawing to a close.

“We’re really excited about all we’ve learned this year,” Thraves said. “We’ve generated great ideas for how FoodCorps can support farm-to-school efforts across the state, increasing the network of people working in farm-to-school programs and developing new resources and tools to support more programming.”

The six service members in North Carolina had different approaches to their school programs, she said. With a year’s experience, “the service members have been able to share multiple models that will be useful in other farm- to-school efforts.”

In addition, Driscoll said the coordinators learned lessons about what types of training and orientation might be most valuable to the service members. Last summer, she and Thraves took the service members on a tour of North Carolina to give them a taste of the state’s culture and to meet school gardening leaders in a variety of regions. This year, even more time will be devoted to basic horticulture and nutrition education lessons, as well as ways to integrate this work with the school cafeteria.

Guilford County Extension staff members Karen Neill, Extension horticulture agent; Shannon Wiley, Extension 4-H agent; and Peggie Lewis Joyce, Extension 4-H agent, helped write the grant proposal for North Carolina’s FoodCorps program.

Guilford County students in the school garden.
The FoodCorps farm-to-school program aims to improve students' nutrition and extend healthy eating habits to their families.

When the Guilford Extension staff learned late last spring that the county would receive a service member, it worked hard to prepare school gardens at the five selected schools before the FoodCorps service member arrived in late August.

In Guilford County, Klaproth stayed busy visiting five schools where gardens were established, teaching mostly third graders because the state’s science curriculum for that grade level includes the study of soils and plants. She worked with as many as 15 classes in a week – sometimes traveling to three different schools in one day to accommodate schedules.

“The kids love her,”  Joyce said of Klaproth. “Parents know when she’s coming to their child’s class because the kids don’t want to miss school.”

The program was very popular, and now other schools are establishing their own gardens and asking for some help from a FoodCorps service member.

Helping students learn to eat what they grow was a challenge for the FoodCorps program. Different strategies were rolled out in different schools. At Fairview and Kirkman Park elementary schools, culinary students from Guilford Technical Community College cooked and served dishes made from vegetables grown by Guilford County farmers.

Students also ate the vegetables they grew in their school gardens. “We had to be creative in finding ways to taste foods,” Klaproth said. Some of the school garden tastings involved “kid-constructed” dishes, including veggie wraps made with collard leaves. The radish harvest was so successful, that Klaproth sent radishes home with the students.

The tasting component is important in helping improve students’ nutrition, and hopefully extending healthy eating habits to their families. “Research has shown that when kids work in the garden and make healthy snacks with what they grow, they are more likely to make healthy choices in the school cafeteria and at home,” Driscoll said.

In Moore County, FoodCorps’ Naskaris arranged for the company that provides foods for Moore County school cafeterias to purchase and serve locally grown sweet potatoes. Warren County’s service member Celeste Frisbee started after-school culinary clubs to teach students some basic cooking skills. As the program ends, the clubs were planning on preparing a final celebration dinner for their families.

Thraves is confident that more can be done on the farm-to-school initiative. “There’s so much going on right now with farm-to-school programs in this state,” she said. “FoodCorps is one more tool on the ground to help get North Carolina food products into school cafeterias.”

The lessons of the gardens extended well beyond food. At one of Guilford’s sites, plants in the school garden were pulled up and left for dead – twice. Both times, Klaproth and the students replanted the plants and watered them well, hoping for a miracle. Klaproth was surprised at how well the twice-vandalized garden actually fared.

“The kids were grief stricken,” Klaproth said. One student who had had discipline problems in his own classroom reported that the experience of having the class garden vandalized helped him see how much it hurts to have something you value taken away or destroyed.

For next year, Guilford County would like to have a second FoodCorps service member to reach four additional schools.

Making the FoodCorps efforts sustainable will be a continuing goal, Driscoll said. Some ways of doing that include training teachers on garden curriculum and getting additional community members involved in caring for the school gardens.

— Natalie Hampton

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