How FoodCorps uses nature to nurture schoolkids’ skills

Members: As gardens grow, academic abilities do too

There is no typical day, nor typical week, for FoodCorps service members in metro Atlanta.

You might find one in a school garden helping students plant kale, sugar snap peas or carrots. Another might be in a classroom making a layered bean dip and talking about the similarities between those layers and the layers in a garden. Or one could be teaching a lesson on the importance of compost or playing a game that helps bring home what it means to have limited access to food.

FoodCorps is part of AmeriCorps, the federal program for national and community service. Service members spend time in limited-resource schools, devoting 50 weeks a year of full-time, stipend-paid public service to help children understand what it means to grow, enjoy and share healthy food. Members generally give one to two years to the program.

This year, there are nine women serving in seven Georgia service sites, from Jackson County to Marietta City Schools and west to Carrollton.

After working as a farm aide in Texas, Suzie Pope came to FoodCorps with an understanding of the importance of farming, but no expectation that she'd want a career in garden education. Now she's sold.

Last year was her first with the program. Her students at DeKalb County’s Briar Vista Elementary not only grew food for themselves, but grew food for others, planting a garden bed of black-eye peas with plans to donate the harvest.

"We talked about how hard it is for some people to get food. (The students) understood, and had ideas about how we could use our garden to overcome some of those obstacles," Pope said.

“They had so many ideas. They wanted to donate everything they grew to those who needed it and to turn the school into a shelter in the evenings. They talked about putting a refrigerator in the garden so people could donate milk and other things we couldn’t grow. And one kindergartner said, ‘Why don’t we teach them how to have their own gardens?’”

Pope said the students followed up on that, deciding to harvest the peas and then make cards and packets to donate the peas to refugee families — a lesson combining art, literacy and consideration.

“You end up teaching confidence and patience, hard work and compassion,” Pope said. “We all learned the lesson: Be kind to the plants. Be kind to the critters. Be kind to each other.” Now she’s serving in the program at the Decatur-based Wylde Center.

Sarah Dasher, now Atlanta Schools Program program manager at the Wylde Center, served in FoodCorps for one year. She came to the program with a background in marketing and communications but wanted to do something that would have an environmental impact.

“A farmer I had worked for sent me the application for FoodCorps and told me to apply,” Dasher said. “I did it because I trusted him as a mentor. After my first month I realized I never wanted to do anything other than this.”

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Pope is serving in three Title I schools in the Atlanta Public Schools system, providing in-school programming, as well as working in the after-school program and on next year’s summer camp at the Edgewood Community Learning Garden.

Dasher sees the addition of a FoodCorps AmeriCorps service member to the Wylde Center program as a way to provide a level of service and community engagement that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.

She appreciates FoodCorps not only for how it connects children to healthy food, but for how it builds leadership skills in the students.

“When I was at Briar Vista Elementary (with FoodCorps), we had a garden club with students from kindergarten through fifth grade,” Dasher said. “I gave them some materials we found around the garden and asked them to build a trellis, something for our peas to climb as they grew.”

Their pea patch was a big tangled mess of vines. Dasher told the children they wouldn’t have a good harvest if they didn’t find a way to keep the vines off the ground and growing upward.

With no coaching from Dasher, a fifth-grader led a group of kindergartners through the process. “They built a kid version of what a farmer might use, doing it all themselves. I saw their resourcefulness and their willingness to listen and work together to solve a problem. That was the moment when I realized I wanted to keep doing this.”

Hannah McTier and Deanna Perlman are new to FoodCorps, just in their first month of service. They are serving in Walton County, brought there by Sagdrina Jalal, executive director of the Georgia Farmers Market Association.

Although the association works all over the state, they chose to bring their first FoodCorps program to Walton County because it had the right combination of farming community, strong farmers market culture, and support from organizations such as the Walton County Soil and Water Conservation District.

“Walton County is home to quite a few farms and many homesteading families. But there wasn’t a lot of connection between all that and the students in the schools,” Jalal said. “Our FoodCorps service members will help us change that.”

Perlman and McTier are starting with projects in two Walton County schools, setting up school gardens and teaching lessons on subjects such as the importance of pollinators and how to create a habitat for them. And, along with the local 4-H clubs, setting up monthly food tastings so kids can sample new fruits and vegetables.

McTier, from Washington, Ga., took a yearlong break from grad school to join FoodCorps. Perlman, a native of Alpharetta, comes to FoodCorps after five years of farm apprenticeship. They’re excited about the chance to teach students about farming and nutrition.

“I’m a hands-on learner, not very good at opening a textbook and learning that way,” Perlman said. “So this is perfect for me, creating experiential learning opportunities for the kids. Bringing in science, history, art and language arts helps make all this applicable to their everyday lives.”

In 2016, the city of Carrollton became the first school system in Georgia to have FoodCorps service members serving under the direction of the school nutrition program. “It just makes sense. We want our students to have a healthy relationship with food,” said Linette Dodson, the system’s director of school nutrition.

Last year, the FoodCorps service member, Dory Cooper, primarily served Carrollton Elementary School and its 1,700 students.

“One of the first lessons we did was on spinach,” Dodson said. “The students grew it in their gardens and talked about how to cook it. Those lessons included literacy and math skills too.”

Dodson said exposing children to the way vegetables are grown and how they are prepared has made the students more accepting of the fresh vegetables they are served at lunch.

Dodson is excited about the success they’ve seen, and this year the program is expanding to the system’s middle and junior high schools.

“The idea is that our FoodCorps service members help start this, and then the school staff can take over,” Dodson said. “It’s a catalyst for change and a support for our teachers. And a practical way to incorporate nutrition education and help our students grow up to be healthier adults.”