FoodCorps members plant seeds for community health in Van Buren

Tiffany Knight may be a first-time gardener, but the seeds she plants in Van Buren will be harvested for generations to come.

Knight is a member of the FoodCorps service at James Tate Elementary and Oliver Springs Elementary, alongside Rebecca Christie, who serves at King Elementary and Central Elementary in Van Buren.

“I’m a city girl, so I’ve never gardened a day in my life,” Knight said. “Really, the kids taught me how to garden.”

Learning goes beyond school walls for the elementary students Christie and Knight work with at FoodCorps, as they dig, plant and harvest in campus gardens.

“We are responsible for tending the gardens, working with the children…teaching them where the food comes from, introducing them to different foods that they may not have tried before,” said Christy. “…Also part of it is responsible for maintaining the garden, planting the seeds so that eventually when FoodCorps leaves, the schools can continue the garden programming.”

FoodCorps, a member of the AmeriCorps Service Network, places service members in schools where 50 percent or more of students receive a free and discounted lunch. Service members teach classes in cooking, gardening, and nutrition to promote a school-wide culture of health.

In Arkansas, service sites are located in Cedarville, Conway, Helena-West Helena, Springdale, and Van Buren.

plant a seed

In addition to teaching children about the growth cycle of plants and recipes using fresh produce, Knight and Christie emphasize a positive and healthy relationship with food.

“I think a really important thing for us is that we make sure we don’t say to the kids, ‘Don’t eat this,'” Christie said. “…It’s more that we want to make sure they know that sometimes an apple tastes really good or ‘hey, let’s try some lettuce.’ …Sometimes they may prefer cucumber to something else, just broadening their palate and getting them to try new foods.

FoodCorps service member Rebecca Christie (right) serves at King Elementary and Central Elementary for the 2021-2022 service year at Van Buren.

Working with communities affected by food insecurity involves tackling the barriers they face, whether due to limited shopping options, high prices, or even additional challenges such as health inequities. and lack of affordable housing.

In Crawford County, where Van Buren is located, the overall food insecurity rate for 2019 was 16.5%, according to Feeding America.

As students work in the field in the garden, Knight said the program recognizes the challenges that families outside of school face with accessible and affordable food.

“I understand that sometimes they’re not able to get fresh fruits and vegetables, so canned and frozen fruits and vegetables are fine as well,” Knight said. “I don’t want to minimize or diminish their feelings towards ‘this is what my family can afford’.”

Both service members also use a culturally and socially appropriate approach to their lessons. For Knight, that means exploring different cultures through food.

“I like to talk about how different things are used in different cuisines,” Knight said. “So maybe how cilantro is used in Latin cuisines or basil in Italian cuisines – just different things like that so kids know how different cultures use different ingredients.”

Cultivate Community Relations

During their year of service, Knight and Christie have become deeply rooted in the Van Buren community and schools.

Knight laughed as he recalled the reactions of students seeing her in schools.

“We’re like celebrities on campus,” Knight said. “They see me from a mile away, and they just run up to me and hug me.”

The impact of the gardens extends far beyond the school grounds, with Christie and Knight cultivating relationships with the community.

Christie worked with Tristin Bolton of the Crawford County Extension Office to bring a bike mixer to Central Elementary and King Elementary schools. Students cycled the bike to make spinach smoothies as part of celebrate Farm Month at school in October 2021.

“Kids still talk about spinach when they see me, like, ‘When are we going to make another smoothie?'” Christie said. “And I’ve had kids say to me, ‘Hey, I made this smoothie at home, and it was really good again. “”

Students at Central Elementary and King Elementary schools used a blender bike to create spinach smoothies during School Farm Month.

Knight has developed relationships with families through parent-teacher days, where the community works together to plant produce in the garden.

“I think that’s really important not just for the things that we teach the kids, but also for the parents…that way the learning continues outside of school,” Knight said. “Involving parents, gardening with them and learning with them and from them connects everything.”

Personal and professional growth

Knight was introduced to the FoodCorps program by a friend who served in the Peace Corps. While the Peace Corps places service members internationally, AmeriCorps members work in communities across the United States.

FoodCorps was a perfect fit for Knight, a student at East Tennessee State University who graduated in May with a master’s degree in public health with a concentration in community and behavioral health. She moved from Orlando, Florida to Van Buren, Arkansas in August 2021.

“Before that, I was at the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida working with food-insecure communities that are predominantly black and Latino,” Knight said. “So, that was up my alley.”

Christie met FoodCorps after graduating from Arkansas Tech University in 2020 and looking for jobs in the nonprofit sector. She moved to Van Buren from Fayetteville, Arkansas in August 2021.

“I grew up gardening, so I knew how nice it was, and I thought it would be great to be able to connect the kids with that and see the different sides of a nonprofit, when it comes to writing grants, working with the administration and the kids at the same time,” Christie said.

For both service members, the program is an opportunity to serve as a role model while developing new skills.

“I learned so much personally, professionally,” Christie said. “I feel like it made me grow.”

How to Join FoodCorps

For those interested in the program, applications for full-time paid positions are due March 31, 2022. Visit foodcorps.org/apply.

“I encourage other public health enthusiasts or community enthusiasts, who are passionate about gardening… [and] school nutrition or who are passionate about growing the next generation to apply,” Knight said.

For more information about FoodCorps in Arkansas, visit www.foodcorps.org and FoodCorps Arkansas Facebook page.

About Michael C. Lovelace

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