Veggie Vision: NBC Spotlights School's Food Program
Wednesday wasn’t just another day in the garden for students at West End Elementary School.
Sure, they had fun getting dirty as they helped build a cob oven, assembled a tippy-tap hand-washing station out of sticks and twine, and tended to raised beds thriving with late summer veggies. But it was all under the focus of cameras from “NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.”
The national news program’s correspondent John Yang spent the day interviewing students, teachers and volunteers at West End Elementary to highlight the launch of Food Corps, a branch of the AmeriCorps service program that seeks to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic by connecting vulnerable kids to healthy food in a nationwide farm-to-school campaign.
The segment aired Friday on “NBC Nightly News.”
Last year, Communities In Schools of Moore County (CIS) was selected to pilot Food Corps in the Moore County school system as one of 50 sites across the country.
CIS was a strong candidate for hosting the inaugural program thanks to the exponential success of its FirstSchool Garden program, which has built gardens and implemented instruction on healthy nutrition in 12 Moore County schools.
The program began in 2007 at Aberdeen Elementary with a “seed-to-saucepan” approach. Since then, the gardens have expanded to other schools, giving more than 3,000 students exposure to healthier food and the benefits of growing it.
Last year, CIS received a $100,000 grant from the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation to expand the program’s instruction even more.
Since Aug. 29, Food Corps service member Sebastian Naskaris has been working with Kathy Byron, director of the FirstSchool Garden program, and students at five Moore County schools, including West End Elementary, to bring them closer to healthy food in the garden and in school cafeterias.
Producers from NBC contacted Naskaris last Friday about featuring the school for a national story on Food Corps. By Monday, West End Elementary principal Leigh Ann McClendon had finalized the network’s visit.
“It was almost surreal that they were here,” she said. “It’s great that they took interest in our school, and that it was for such a positive thing and not a negative. You don’t see that very often. Our children were so excited, and I feel like they got to really highlight what we’ve been working on.”
‘Making Learning Tangible’
Naskaris, who came to Moore County after working as a farmer in New York, is one of 82 service members Food Corps has placed across the country.
Though he enjoyed selling produce at some of the top farmers markets in New York City, Naskaris saw that he could bring healthy food to a wider population when he learned about Food Corps.
“One of the things I became unsatisfied with was the very small percentage of people I saw with access to really healthy and nutritious food,” he said. “Some of this is related to cost. Some of this is related just to availability. So when I found out about Food Corps, it made a lot of sense to me because I think that healthy food is a right of every human being.”
Naskaris sees his work as addressing a “struggle” that people have always encountered.
“That’s a difficulty of finding food that’s nutritious for us,” he said. “That’s been a human endeavor from our start, and so, when we get difficult kids who are difficult only because they haven’t been in contact with a lot of healthy fruits and vegetables, it’s not really a promised opportunity.”
Naskaris spends time with students both in the garden and in the school cafeteria, talking to them during lunchtime about the food they are eating.
Since CIS has already laid the groundwork for instruction in the garden, he sees opportunity to take lessons further.
“I find that the more that we can make learning tangible and experiential and can give kids a relationship, the deeper their investment is in their own education and ultimately, in their own lives,” he said. “A lot of times what we have to learn is very imaginary, so it’s nice to be able to touch something and see how it works, and then to build on that. I think that’s been very useful for us.”
Working With Farmers
Naskaris is also working to facilitate local farm-to-school sourcing in cafeterias by creating relationships with farmers in the area.
Though he admits that there are some roadblocks in getting more local food into the cafeteria soon because of current food contracts, Naskaris hopes to make strides by making connections with the community and starting the conversation about healthier options.
“What we’re finding is that it takes the entire community to find out what resources are available,” Naskaris said. “We have a tremendous amount of [local] farmers with great, healthy fruits and vegetables. It’s figuring out how as a group do we begin to include these resources, these local products, in our cafeterias.”
Naskaris also hopes to connect students with local farmers by inviting them to the garden. On Wednesday, among other volunteers, two farmers from Fox Squirrel Farm in Eagle Springs helped work at West End Elementary.
“By volunteering, they are showing the kids how they plant, meeting the kids so they know a farmer — when you know a farmer, you know a little bit more about where your food is from — and just beginning to build a relationship,” he said. “I think having a certain part of the population who decides to contribute their lives to providing food for a larger body of people is not something to take for granted. I think for too long, we have taken that for granted. So it’s really great when we can get kids introduced to farmers so they can see that some of these people are really awesome.”
‘Like Science and Recess’
As the camera rolled, fifth-graders enjoyed getting to work in the spotlight.
Gabreil Roth played it cool as he helped tie twine for the tippy-tap washing station, which will allow students to wash their hands without wasting extra water from a running hose.
“It’s freaky because they’re filming everything you’re doing,” he said later. “It’s always fun when we get to come out here because you get to garden and get dirty.”
Roth’s classmate, Andrew Locklear, said he likes coming out to the garden because it’s a fun way to learn about the world around him.
“You hardly feel like you’re doing work,” he said. “This is like doing science and recess at the same time.”
Last year, the concept of growing and eating his own vegetables was a little unfamiliar to Locklear.
“It was kind of new eating vegetables coming straight from the ground,” he said. “We cut them up and ate them in the cafeteria.”
Since then, Locklear has been able to take what he has learned and help his family garden. Though some vegetables didn’t grow as well because of the soil this summer, Locklear said he showed his dad how to make some plants, such as watermelon, grow better.
“I told him what he needed to do,” Locklear said.
Across the garden, students took off their shoes and stomped around in clay donated to the school by Fireshadow Pottery, while CIS youth coordinator Matrina McDonald distributed wet clumps for students to place around the cob oven, a wood-fire oven made of clay, sand and straw.
Once completed, the oven will be used for outdoor cooking activities this fall.
Mary Susan Humphrey’s students are especially excited about making veggie pizza with vegetables grown in the garden.
When her class helped design and build the garden last year, students chose to build it around the school system’s “Growing to Greatness” learning model, by dedicating different areas of the garden to the four pathways (learning, community, culture and leadership) and building paths that run around the raised beds.
Since then, the fifth-grade language arts and social studies teacher has watched her students take ownership of the garden in a way that has given them not only access to healthier food, but also a chance to develop strong character.
After putting in the work to cultivate and harvest the vegetables, the students enjoyed making wraps and salads with the lettuces, bringing food from home to create a “salad bar” for snack time.
“We fixed special snacks and talked about how much healthier it is than the chips they normally bring,” Humphrey said.
For her, the garden is an outdoor classroom that provides opportunity for students to approach subjects in a different way that encourages hands-on interest.
“We’ve talked so much about the steps, the sequence on planting and harvesting,” she said. “We wrote up the directions, and we published it and took it to the first-grade class. For social studies, we make connections on where these vegetables originally came from.”
She added that the garden generates an expanded dialogue as students make connections between the plants in front of them and the ideas they are discussing.
“It opens the door for a teaching moment,” Humphrey said. “It encourages them to get out and move around and eat healthy. I feel really fortunate that I’m able to incorporate the garden into my teaching.”
Leigh Ann McClendon hopes her staff can expand on those moments.
In efforts to create more opportunities, the school continues to work on a nature trail connecting to a spring behind the garden, and McClendon added that the school’s “wish list” includes the installation of a beach volleyball court on the other side of the garden’s picnic shelter to establish a visible link between exercise and healthy eating.
As West End Elementary prepares for its 15 minutes of fame, students and teachers are hopeful that their enthusiasm for their school garden will translate into healthier choices and more gardens for students across the country.
McClendon said she was thrilled that the segment would air on “Nightly News,” though she did not have a finalized date at the time of the interview with The Pilot.
She’s also hoping to get a DVD of the segment so all students at West End Elementary will have the opportunity to see their school featured on the program.
“That’s something really special for our students, and it’s surely something to celebrate,” she said. “I want to make sure that every child at our school gets to see it.”
View the featured segment here.
Contact Hannah Sharpe by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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