This year in Kalispell it seemed the calendar turned straight from winter to summer. The early thaw lifted a thick blanket of snow from our school gardens and left them bursting with green garlic shoots in what felt like a matter of days. This early summer has been a bit of a mixed blessing; it extended the growing season enough that my students were able to plant seeds and watch them grow to purple and pink radishes before the final school bell rang (quite a feat here in the northwest corner of Montana!), but it also meant there wasn’t much prep time before our new production garden at the Central Kitchen needed to be, well..producing.This summer will mark my final season serving with FoodCorps Montana in Kalispell Public Schools, concluding a two-year service term that has been challenging, inspiring, and fulfilling beyond my expectations.
The truth is, I didn’t really have many expectations before packing up my Subaru sedan and driving the 2,336 miles from Charlottesville, Virginia to the Flathead Valley with my boyfriend, a few books, a few sweaters, and a few forks and knives. I had read A River Runs Through It and seen Legends of the Fall when I was in middle school (though full disclosure I mostly just remember Brad Pitt), but I had never been to “The Land of Gold and Silver,” and had spent most of my life living among the gentle rolling hills of the Mid-Atlantic. When I first saw Flathead Lake I thought we had made a very wrong turn somewhere back on Route 90 and had ended up at the Pacific Ocean.
My second year of service was an important opportunity to build and improve upon my first term, which was a year spent mostly learning the ropes, learning names, learning how to be a teacher, and learning how to garden in Zone 4. At the start of my second year, I had built the relationships, the logistical sense, and mastered the basic skills to really start getting things done. With the help of this amazing community of teachers, families, volunteers, service members, students, food service staff, my ever supportive, encouraging, and inspiring Food Service Director/Supervisor/friend, Jenny Montague, we have built three new educational gardens and a production garden at the District 5 Central Kitchen. We have also begun harvesting produce from the gardens that has been directly incorporated into garden classes and the school lunch and free summer meals program.
Our production garden at the new Central Kitchen Building is in its first full summer, and we have plucked radishes, greens, and herbs that have brightened up the elementary school salad bars and trays of the summer meals program. We’ve made procurement relationships with local farmers, producers, and the new Integrated Agriculture program at Flathead Valley Community College, and we are currently spending over 30% of our annual food budget on local produce, as well as incorporating an increasing amount of our own garden produce onto the lunch line. Students are helping us to compost in the lunchrooms at some of our elementary schools, and we are using leftover meals from the cafeterias to provide critical nutrition to food-insecure high school students through our new Heart Market and Heart Pantry program. We partnered with the local agricultural non-profit Farm Hands to award Farm to School grants to fund kitchen equipment and gardens in other districts around the Valley. I even got to take Governor Bullock on a school garden tour!
I’ve been fortunate enough to serve with hundreds of students in the gardens during the school day and during after school garden club, exploring the journey of our food from seed to plate, the role of pollinators, Native American planting practices, and answering important questions like, “Is dirt really made of worm poop?” (Answer: Kind of.) With my third graders at Hedges Elementary School, we started seeds in the classroom under grow lights, transplanted them into the garden, and eventually harvested lettuce, arugula, spinach and chives for a salad party on the last class of the school year. We only had a couple of thumbs down in the taste test, and every student had the opportunity to nurture a seed and watch it transform into a healthy, delicious meal.
Another project that has come to fruition this service term, which I am particularly excited about, is our pilot program with the Center for Restorative Youth Justice (CRYJ). CRYJ will actually be the co-sponsoring organization for Whitney Pratt, our 2015-2016 FoodCorps service member in Kalispell. CRYJ works with adjudicated youth, creating the opportunity for dialogue between victims, youth offenders, and community volunteers – encouraging and supporting youth to take accountability for their actions while developing important skills and resiliencies through community service and therapeutic activities. This winter, we created the idea for a collaboration between CRYJ and Kalispell Public Schools, through which CRYJ teens could fulfill community service requirements by working in the gardens in the spring and summer. In my eyes, the program is beautifully symbiotic: Teens are exposed to the hard work, beauty and resiliency of the garden, and they in turn help us to manage the weeding, watering, planting and harvesting needs of the gardens during summer vacation. This program provides teens with the opportunity to interact with young children, older community volunteers, and their peers, and creates an open space for conversation and connection. We are also in the beginning stages of implementing a sustainable agriculture curriculum for the participants, as well as teaching them basic cooking and nutrition lessons and other invaluable life skills.
At the end of my first service term in July 2014, I decided to stay on for a second year, primarily because I felt I had so many projects and ideas that just didn’t feel completed. I wasn’t done yet! Approaching the end of my second year, I feel exactly the same way. There are still schools that want their own gardens, there’s quack grass growing at Elrod, and I want to plant more basil! I expect that on July 31st, the final day of my service term, I’ll be the archetypal tap dancer getting slowly pulled offstage by a long hook, arms waving. There will always be more to build, more to plant, more to weed. I’m so happy to be passing on my service to Whitney, who I know will do an amazing job next year, and will have her own ideas and vision to grow in this community.
I have fallen in love with Montana’s epic, unknowable mountains, the strength, kindness, and sense of adventure in so many of the people I have met here, and the ever-shifting canvas of the sky. Most of all, I have been forever changed by the curiosity, the openness, and the warmth of the community of children I have had the privilege to work with in District 5. Though I have realized that I am not made of the infinite patience and assuredness that all good teachers possess–and I may not ever find myself at the front of another classroom in my career–I’ve learned that kids expect you to be the best version of yourself every day. They can tell when you’re not prepared, when you’re tired, and when you don’t really understand exactly how bees make honey. Basically, they know when you’re faking it.
My students have trusted me with painful stories about their home lives, their struggles with hunger, their fears about the future, and their jokes. I have gotten so many amazing hugs, unexpected compliments (“I like your teeth!”), one second grader even tried to kidnap me. As many times as I’ve watched a child try a new fruit or vegetable, or heard one begrudgingly admit, “Beets aren’t so bad,” they’ve taught me their own bright, shiney lesson (e.g. “Don’t ever be afraid to tell someone you love them.”). At the end of the summer, I’ll be driving back out of Kalispell with so many memories, so many lessons, a few new sweaters, and friendships with one-year-olds through septuagenarians that I hope will bloom throughout my life post-FoodCorps.
Jessica has loved to cook, grow, and share good food her whole life, and is constantly inspired by the power food has to create strong community. Jessica began her career in school food nutrition as a volunteer with Ann Cooper and the School Lunch Initiative in Berkeley, CA, and later worked as Sourcing Director for a local food distributor in Charlottesville, VA, where she learned about the economics of the local food system and the unique challenges and rewards of working with small scale producers. Throughout these experiences, she wrote for small newspapers and magazines about farming, wellness, and social innovations.