I walked into the kitchen at Polson’s Cherry Valley Elementary School on June 12th fully expecting just to say a cheerful “hey!” to the wonderful food service staff and chat about how their summer food program was going. I was barely even planning to bring up local sourcing. But after exchanging greetings, JB dove right in, asking me “so what have you got right now?”

Timeless Organic Petite Crimson Lentils!
Image Source: www.timelessfood.com

I was floored—and excited! Here was someone who wanted to do local sourcing and all I had to do was show up. My presence got the juices flowing, aided tremendously by all the work last year’s Service Member Lindsay Howard did to bring JB and her summer program on board with local sourcing. I wasn’t prepared to talk specifics on that day, but over the next couple of weeks, JB and I developed processes and added local products to the menu. This summer, JB will be mixing organic Montana lentils into her ground beef using a 50-pound bag of Petite Crimson lentils donated by Timeless Seeds and my Lentil Cooking Guide. She’ll be serving local produce—starting with lettuce and tarragon for a homemade salad dressing—enabled by the Western Montana Growers Cooperative which is adding Polson to their regular call list and delivering right to the school. I’m looking forward to encouraging Polson to transition these local sourcing practices into the regular school year.

This is one example of an important lesson I’ve been learning this year: making change in a community often starts with just a spark—a simple personal connection by email, phone, or visit. I never know when I’m going to be the spark until I try and see if it catches.

Fourth graders point out features of a map of local food
on the Flathead Reservation.

As a FoodCorps Service Member being tasked with making change in my community, the common perception might be that I’m the spark igniter. In fact, it is often the community that sparks me into action! One day in April I received an email from Andrew, an NRCS Soil Conservationist and small farmer in the Mission Valley, asking me if I wanted to have a station at Lake County Conservation District’s 4th Grader Ag Days. I hadn’t heard of this event, but I was beyond thrilled at the opportunity to reach so many students with an activity on local food.

In only 10-15 minutes with each group of fourth graders, FoodCorps Service Member Katie Wheeler and I led the students through a whirlwind introduction to local food and why it’s important. The kids learned that most of the Flathead Reservation’s agricultural products are consumed somewhere else, that farmers grow food that’s consumed locally on diversified farms, that these farmers sell their food at farmers markets and through Western Montana Growers Cooperative, and that kids get to eat food directly from farmers when they buy from the farmers market and at school when lunch or snack is sourced from the co-op. We discussed why eating local food is important, demonstrating how local food keeps money locally, food fresher and healthier, and the environment cleaner.

The activity used two interactive Velcro boards where the
students imagined their own diversified farm and
mapped the Flathead Reservation’s local food system.

At Fourth Grader Ag Days Katie and I taught 300 kids foundational concepts about local food. I witnessed kids (and the accompanying adults) reacting with surprise to facts like how far food travels to the store (1,500 miles), or how much of every dollar farmers get when we buy food at the store (15 cents), or even how we don’t know if the beef we buy from the store is one of the many cows raised in our valley. Fourth Grader Ag Days was one of the most meaningful experiences of my service and it all happened because I got the spark.

Sparks transform latent interest and preliminary ideas into action. They light the fires which make change in a community and spread embers that may be rekindled sometime in the near or distant future. Now that I realize it just takes a spark, I’ll give and receive them even more freely to make things happen in my community.

Nicki Jimenez is a Service Member in Ronan.