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Afternoons in the Garden

Leah with Students in the Garden
Leah with Students in the Garden
In August, The Food Project embarked on its second year as the Massachusetts host site for FoodCorps, a national nonprofit organization that works with schools to create a healthier school food environment. What follows is the fifth of a series of blogs profiling the FoodCorps members who are serving at The Food Project during the 2012-13 school year.

 

On a typical weekday afternoon, FoodCorps Service Member Leah Jones can be found in the lush gardens at Veterans Memorial Elementary School in Gloucester, Mass., surrounded by children. Every day, Leah and her students take another adventure into the garden to learn about growing food, cooking, and eating healthily. On one fall afternoon, they harvest kale from their garden and make it into sweet and delicious smoothies. When the weather gets colder, they use pumpkins from The Food Project’s farm in Beverly to make hearty pumpkin soup. In the springtime, they will plant and harvest an abundance of sweet and spicy lettuces, radishes, peas, and carrots to turn into delicious salads and snacks.

By the end of this school year, Leah hopes the children she works with will have a greater understanding and excitement for growing, cooking, and eating healthy foods, and that they will share their newfound knowledge and enthusiasm with their families. She would love it, she says, "if we could have a student-run farmers market at the school ... where once a week the elementary schoolers could sell their produce to the families, the teachers, and the school community, and then the revenue would go back to the school garden or other programs at the school." Sound too ambitious for elementary school students? Not for these kids. Leah's 30 students spend four afternoons each week engaged in activities about gardening, cooking, food, and fitness.

Each afternoon starts with a "power snack," a healthy snack prepared from The Open Door food pantry in Gloucester. After their snack, the children begin the "Passport to Fitness" program. They spend half of the afternoon with Leah in the garden or kitchen and the other half engaged in a fitness activity with staff from the local YMCA. The after school program is both difficult and rewarding, says Leah. "At the beginning, it was really challenging to even get a child to try a new food. Now, students are much more open and excited to try new foods, especially when they are the ones making them. I recently overheard one student boasting to another that she was getting smarter, faster, and stronger because she ate a veggie and homemade hummus wrap that day ... That made my day."

When she is not in the garden at Veterans Memorial Elementary School, Leah manages the garden at The Open Door food pantry, supports fellow FoodCorps service member Briana Iacovetta in building raised bed gardens with teenagers from The Food Project's Academic Year Program, and is a garden mentor for the Backyard Growers Program in Gloucester.

Before joining FoodCorps, Leah was an active participant in energy- and food-focused environmental movements in her hometown of Oklahoma City, Okla., and in Austin, Tex., where she studied environmental studies and German at Southwestern University. She helped lead a campaign with fellow students to make Southwestern University the first school in Texas and the fourth school in the United States to be 100% wind powered. In addition, she worked with The Sierra Club and Central Texas pecan farmers on clean energy issues, and interned at Urban Roots, a youth development organization modeled after The Food Project. Leah has been interested in social justice for as long as she can remember, and plans to continue to work in the sustainable food movement after FoodCorps.

"Food is more that just daily caloric sustenance; food is the basis of health and well-being and can transform a culture into one that has more justice, equality, sustainability, and love." For now, look for her in the garden.

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