By Joshua Kanter
There’s been much ado about Gallup’s two FoodCorps service members, Joshua Kanter and Melissa Levenstein, this autumn. FoodCorps, an AmeriCorps National nonprofit in its second year, is a volunteer program focused on engaging youth in gardens, nutrition education, and local food procurement in schools. FoodCorps currently serves Juan de Oñate Elementary, Church Rock Academy, and Uplift Community School. So what have we done?
October, or Farm to School Month for the school foodies, was a four week experiment for us. The Farm to School movement is a push for more localized production and sourcing for school cafeterias. Local food is good for the local economy, it’s fresher (read yummy), and lowers our carbon footprint.
Oñate leveraged the Navajo Coordinated Approach to School Health grant to buy a season of local vegetables for us from the Work in Beauty Community Supported Agriculture program. Every Friday we came to school with a variety of in-season, local produce (onions, potatoes, garlic, greens, potatoes, beets, chiles, tomatoes, herbs) and fixed up a tasting. We’ve cooked roasted root crops, garlic mashed potatoes (twice), simple vegetable soups, with general acceptance. In the last week a fourth grader remarked as I came around with the pot of soup, “Mr. Josh, I have no idea what that is but I bet it is delicious!” If I can remember, I try to preface cafeteria tastings with things like, “I’d love for you all to try this, and if you don’t like it, that’s fine! But please, keep your ‘Ews!’ and ‘Yucks!’ for recess!” We always stress that the food was grown in Gallup by a person, a friend of ours, Amy Halliday.
October was physical. For a week straight we cultivated the land behind the Juvenile Detention Center (JDC) for winter planting. The JDC plot is over an acre of semi-productive land without a consistent caregiver. With adequate attention the space can be a boon to the local food economy. We recruited the help of Garth from Holiday Nursery to help rip up all the overgrown weeds, amended the soil with manure from Red Rock State Park, and tilled it all in for overwintering. Then, Melissa and I sectioned off a 500 sq-ft rectangle and toasted to planting it with garlic. A lot of garlic. We bought a hundred and twenty pounds of it from our friend Jesse Daves of Amyo Farms in Albuquerque with the proceeds from Crumby Bread Company, our weekend fundraising project. It was destined for the hands of 50 fourth graders from Juan de Oñate: a Halloween morning field trip to the farm!
A November highlight at Oñate came from inside the classroom with the third graders. Erin Farver invited FoodCorps to come discuss some of the utilitarian uses of plants preceding a Navajo mother’s accounting of her experiences as a youth and now mother with medicinal and spiritual herbs. To be frank, I didn’t really have a clear picture of what our activity might look like but I was grateful they asked, so I quickly said yes. Time went by and I still hadn’t figured out what this utilitarian use lesson would be; FoodCorps is all about planting and eating, not using! I think it came to me over one of those big stir fries – where you’ve got all this aging produce in your refrigerator and it’s got to get out – one of those. Orange and purple cauliflower, green bell peppers, lots of okra, orange carrots, jalapeños, onions and garlic . . . and a beet. A beet. Man, the whole thing became red. Everything! It was pretty shocking to see how quickly the purple leeched out and permeated the contents of the pan. It planted a seed in my head. It wasn’t until the next morning that I knew our utilitarian activity would be plant dyes. I came in with pomegranates, persimmons, coffee beans, beets, vinegar, a VitaMix, and my camping stove and conjured up four natural dyes with the students. N.B. If you are trying this at home, skip the persimmons. The next day we came back and used the dyes like watercolors and painted them onto construction paper. The more porous the paper, the better it works. Overall, it was a great project. And yes, the beets dye exceedingly well.
Melissa splits her time between Church Rock Academy and the new charter school, Uplift Community School.
At Church Rock, Melissa works with the second and third grades in a focused, longitudinal approach. She works with the staff to coordinate her lessons with theirs, making the interventions more seamless. Students are learning all about garlic right now: how to plant it, what we can make with it, how it helps us. Melissa is also working to better use the new hoop house at Church Rock by recruiting families to come deposit their animals’ manure for soil amending. If you, too, have a surplus, get in contact! Finally, on November 7, FoodCorps brought FoodPlay, a traveling theatre troop performing hilarious and engaging skits about nutrition for youth.
At Uplift, Melissa also works with the second and third graders. Her first project tasked them to build eight raised beds, five by three feet. The combined classes formed into teams, or crews, and devised strategies. The theme of a crew is prominent at Uplift – forcing students there to work with peers to accomplish tasks bigger than an individual could do alone. The boxes were then planted with cold season crops: lettuces, carrots, beets, broccoli, kales, and more.
Melissa is guiding her students to think seasonally in their plantings. As awesome as year-round local tomatoes would be, it’s not something our climate can support. Leading up to the Thanksgiving recess, Melissa asked her students to search through cookbooks in groups and present their best seasonal meal. The class will cook one of those meals upon their return after Thanksgiving.
Stay tuned for more FoodCorps happenings.
We would like to acknowledge a multitude of people in Gallup who make our service possible. Thank you, Rick Chavez of Glenn’s Bakery for opening his doors to Crumby Bread Co. every week for our project. Thank you, La Montañita Co-op for your support. Thank you, Holiday Nursery for donating seeds for our gardens. Thank you, Youth Conservation Corps for your labor. Thank you, Gallup.