When I appear in the doorway of the cafeteria, the room starts to buzz. “Is that Ms. Leah?” the students whisper to each other. As I come closer, their excitement mounts, and many can’t contain themselves: “It is her!” they shout as they jump out of their seats and surround me with hugs and high fives. “We’re eating sweet potatoes in our lunch today!” Alex, a 5th grader now taller than I, tells me pointing at the cup of orange deliciousness on the table. “Remember when we grew sweet potatoes with our class? When we got to eat them, they were so good!”
Of course I remember planting the tender sweet potato slips with students, and seeing their awe as the vines quickly overtook all adjacent pathways in the garden. What delights me is that these students remember that scene from two years ago, and quickly make the connection between that orange vegetable on their trays to the experience of planting and growing food out in the garden.
When FoodCorps service members sign up for a year of service connecting kids to real food in schools, there are many unknowns. “Will a year of service really impact my community?” is just a one of many questions I heard from new service members at the start of the service term in September. My experience at this sweet potato lunch is just one of the many reasons that I am able to answer this doubt with a resounding “Yes!”
You see, I moved to North Carolina two and a half years ago to join the ranks of FoodCorps’ inaugural service member class in High Point, serving with five elementary schools to build and teach in gardens and help food service staff source local produce for meals. Fast forward a few years, and I have two service terms under my belt, and am now the FoodCorps Fellow, helping support and train service members from the state level. Having been with FoodCorps for three terms has allowed me to see the impact of my service in ways that one year could not allow for. Although I no longer serve directly with kids and schools everyday in my position as fellow, I have the opportunity to visit my old schools, and catch a glimpse of the lasting healthy habits that my service has helped to instill in these kids, one and two years later.
And I’ve found that its not only kids who carry these lessons from the garden forward in their lives; it’s the teachers, staff, and community members, too. On a visit to another of my old service schools, I ran into a third grade teacher whose class I took out to the garden each week throughout my first year of service. She casually mentioned to me that she was now taking night classes at the local university, working toward a Masters Degree in Agriculture Education. When I prompted her about why she had made this decision, she said, “Until you came along, I had never gardened or thought to take my students outside to learn. It was so fun, and I learned so much in the process, I wanted to know more.” I did not know how much this teacher had been impacted by my presence with her class, and had I not run into her years later, I may have never known.
But this is the nature of service. Placed in communities for a year or two, service members are the sparks of enthusiasm, the vegetable marketing masterminds, and the community organizers that bring people together around the topic of real, healthy food. It is a tough task to be charged with, as lasting, positive change takes time. We don’t know when that seed of love for growing and cooking food will germinate: A decade later when a student decides to go to culinary school? When they decide to garden with their own kids? We don’t know the answers, but we have to be confident that the small victories we witness everyday in gardens and cafeterias across the country are paving the way for communities invested in healthy food.
I know this because I myself am I product of agricultural education. Growing up in the farmlands of central California, I received a four-year, daily education of the plants and animals that nourish us. Without my hands-on experience with agriculture during the school day, I know that my life would not be on this course of working towards a healthier nation through good food. In my three years with FoodCorps, I have the unique perspective of seeing the upward momentum of my service in schools. I have learned, though, is that nothing changes overnight. So, my advice for anyone working toward healthy school food environments: stay enthusiastic and be patient; you never know who you may be inspiring.
by Leah Klaproth, FoodCorps fellow in North Carolina.
FoodCorps is a nationwide team of passionate leaders who work to connect kids to real food. As a “Seed Funder,” Annie’s is enabling FoodCorps Fellows to support, guide, and mentor service members who then go out to teach kids about what healthy food is and where it comes from, build and tend school gardens, and bring high-quality local food into public school cafeterias.