Madyson Versteeg is a FoodCorps Service Member in Billings.

Winter is here in full force, bringing blustery days, dustings of snow, and the end of the Salvation Army’s Youth Gardening Program. I wanted the last week of Garden Program to be special and memorable—something for the kids to carry with them until the start of next semester’s program in February. The Salvation Army’s youth programs ended with a recital and gallery to display the children’s various musical talents, ceramics, and textile arts. And the special treat this year…something from the “garden!” With a dormant outdoor garden, we’ve kept busy with indoor hydroponic growing, nutrition lessons, cooking and garden art projects. As we contemplated the many ways in which we could share our garden space with this larger audience, we concluded that the most compelling way would be to provide garden and local food refreshments for everyone at the recital! The refreshments included a homemade simple soft cheese with crackers and a local Gallatin Valley carrot cake.

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While making these dishes, the kids were awed by the “ginormous” size of the carrots. Some eagerly gnawed them whole, while others attempted eating them like cobs of corn. After carrot shredding, baking and frosting the cake, we moved on to dish number 2. Students were equally excited to try their second cheese-making venture. This time we went with soft cheese instead of hard. Just the month before, we had gone over the basic methods and history of cheese making. I was thrilled with their retention of this lesson and enthusiasm to try a different recipe.

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The students were also excited to show off their recently acquired “red crawler” worm bin. They diligently explained to their parents and other guests how they had delicately transferred the worms to their new homes and cared for them over the past couple months. A young girl recounted touching a worm for the first time and then helped her classmates demonstrate how they cover the worms with a “blanket” of shredded newspaper in addition to some left over produce to snack on for later.

I have also kept busy over the winter months taking the Environmental Science students from Billings High to the Salvation Army’s thrift store and Middle Ground where the hydroponic growing takes place. Many of these students have taken on semester long agricultural projects. I, of course, was thrilled to help facilitate some of these diverse projects. One group painted a mural exemplifying Billings’ agricultural endeavors. Another group designed and built a chicken coop out of recycled materials and then created a how-to manual on building backyard chicken coops. Several groups took on hydroponic and aquaponic growing projects where they experimented with various growing mediums, plants, and fish species. Other groups tackled larger issues of food security and healthy food accessibility in Billings through film and public awareness projects.

Throughout this process, students have kept their own blogs where they update the community on their progress, discoveries and challenges. The students even received coverage from the Billings Gazette which showcased their projects and commended them for their efforts to integrate into and benefit the community. The Salvation Army is just one example of a community organization that has directly benefited from these projects. We now have a gorgeous mural in our growing room and a plethora of innovative indoor growing ideas!

>To read the Billings Gazette article click HERE.