Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Food Corps Visit the CFSA Sustainable Ag Conference

A Plate of Rainbows

    Imagine trying to put together a puzzle with dozens of pieces missing. The only pieces you have are at opposite edges and it is nearly impossible to tell what the whole picture is supposed to look like.  Some people, however, possess the gift of vision, the ability to see how everything should fit together, and also the gift of inspiring that vision in others. Debra Eschmeyer, co-founder of FoodCorps and keynote speaker at the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association's Sustainable Agriculture conference in Greenville, SC, is one such seer.  She recognized the need for school children to have access to healthy food, and as an organic farmer, also saw the need to restore locally grown food markets. (And she saw me come into the conference room with my son, Jude, in the ergo and hurried to offer me a chair. The room was packed with people standing in the back!) 
   A farmer, a teacher, a classroom, a cafeteria, thousands struggling with childhood obesity and hunger, both results of malnutrition and often in company with each other. And hundreds of young adults, eager to make a difference in the world, who need training, mentoring and sending out into the battlefield of world hunger, now a domestic reality. How could these all fit together?

   I saw a few of the "pieces" Saturday at the FoodCorp's workshop at the conference. Not only did I see them, but I got to meet, talk to and hug them. A young woman named Florita told of how she visits classrooms in North Carolina and teaches nutrition through fun charts, a plate of rainbow colors, songs and hands on activities. Another demonstrated fun exercises to get the whole body moving. Yet another team plans and sets up "taste testing" tables at school events.  We got to experience one successful experiment with collard greens. No, they weren't sauteed and slopped onto our plates, making everything around it soggy (bear with me, I like them just about any way, but I'm trying to think like a kid). We were handed a BIG LEAF and sent along a buffet line to assemble our collard wrap. Colorful sliced peppers, shredded carrots, hummus, just a touch of lemon juice...My taste buds were cheering in bold capitals! And what? We just ate all the plant parts we learned in our science lesson yesterday? Leaf, fruit, root, and mashed up garbanzos- the seed! We are eating our homework!

   But no less than the visible, colorful, engaging activities are the behind-the-scenes negotiating, bridge building and trust earning. The hard, long, patient process that addresses every concern, dispels every fear and breaks down those hard to see walls that often get in the way of something good. Like getting good, fresh food from a local farm into school lunches and kids' bellies. The FoodCorps (drum roll, please) does this, too. That day, his name was Sebastian.
   Next, we heard more moving stories from Lydia, Allison, Sarah, (I wish I could remember all the names, but I remember their faces). These soldiers have learned to adapt to the moment. They may grab a carrot from the school garden, see it pilfered by a bold youngster, and during the course of the fun food talk, watch it float to every corner of the room, handled and, yes, tried on in a hundred ways... and you can then imagine the magic of countless, tiny neurons connecting those small, orange dice on the menu with this beautiful, feathery topped, earth smelling taproot that makes a crazy wig!
   My favorite story was how they arranged for a class group to enter the Forbidden Portal, the Room of Mysterious Smells, where boxes are loaded into the back and somehow transformed into Today's Menu. But this time, they are no longer mere students. Today they are the Fantastic Five-and-a-Half's, the Veggie Heroes, the Super Chefs. And the hot, tired, often under appreciated kitchen staff welcome them in, help them cut things, roll things, mix things until the special School Snack is ready. And oh, the envy of the chosen few who get to stand with the crew behind the counter to serve. When I grow up, maybe I'll be just like you, and serve in the lunch line, helping kids make healthy choices.
   The audience, at this point, had their own stories to share. Jill is a farmer who teaches (or is she a teacher who farms?) and had her science class plant seeds as part of her lesson. A clamoring crew, some soil, pots, the allure of scarcity (only one seed each, please) and her spring starts are done for her. Another had the class bring apples, which are all different and can be sorted, grouped and charted many different ways before they are eaten.
   Thus, the pieces fall into place and mold themselves to the shape that is most needed to connect the scattered fragments. A picture begins to emerge. It is a picture of a village reborn, a community that realizes itself. A taproot that grows into many branching fronds and draws life and health, light and laughter into itself. A feast waiting for a world to wake up and gather around it.
    But there is so much to be done. There are still hungry people. And there are still people eating alone. Let's keep passing the Rainbow Plate, and not ever, ever let it stop. FoodCorps has shown us the way. They have shown that it can be done, and that there is a task for all of us.

-Sara Harding, October, 2012

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