Healthy habits

FoodCorps focuses on better nutrition through curiosity

Students at McManus Elementary School gather tomatoes and flowers from the school’s garden.

Students at McManus Elementary School gather tomatoes and flowers from the school’s garden.

Photo courtesy of Linnea Mack

Growing up, easy access to fresh, healthy food was a consistent part of Linnea Mack’s life. It wasn’t until she got a little bit older that she realized that wasn’t the case for everybody.

“I was raised in a home were we ate mostly organic,” said Mack, 21, a recent graduate of UCLA. “When I was in high school, I realized that was a privilege in many ways, and that not everyone ate or knew about the importance of good food. It helped me realize how lucky I was.”

That realization remained at the back of Mack’s mind as she studied geography—with an emphasis on environmental issues—in college. A course focused on cities and food further enforced Mack’s understanding that food access is a matter of social justice, and after graduating this past spring she spent the summer working with Food Forward, an organization that collects leftover produce from Los Angeles-area farmers’ markets and distributes it to organizations dedicated to poverty and hunger relief.

Mack said seeing firsthand the positive impacts of fresh food for those who received it encouraged her to continue on that path. She applied and was accepted to FoodCorps, an AmericCorps program dedicated to educating schoolchildren about and connecting them to healthy food and eating habits. She recently began working toward those goals with the Chico Unified School District. She’ll spend one year in Chico with the program and, while she grew up in San Jose, she’s no stranger to the area, as her grandparents are longtime Butte County residents.

Mack is the third FoodCorps member to come to Chico since the organization partnered with CUSD three years ago, according to Crystal O’Rear, the district’s nutrition specialist and program liaison. The partnership is funded by the Carol M. White Physical Education Program (more commonly known as the PEP grant), a federal funding source directed toward physical and nutritional education for students from kindergarten through high school.

Locally, the program focuses on educating students in after-school programs through hands-on experience in community gardens at McManus and Citrus elementary schools.

“Our garden education program is very important to the district, and working with FoodCorps has helped us optimize the value of that program,” O’Rear said. “One of our goals is to teach our kids that food doesn’t just come packaged and processed from the grocery store. When they see food growing from the ground and pick it from plants and vines, it really helps with that understanding.

“When students take part in helping to grow the food, they get excited, or at least curious enough to try things they may not have been willing to before.”

Linnea Mack says her choice to join FoodCorps—an AmeriCorps program—was influenced by her parents’ Peace Corps service.

Photo by Ken Smith

To help develop that curiosity, the district’s FoodCorps service member also helps facilitate a regular, district-wide program at CUSD called Harvest of the Month. Each month, the district obtains a particular crop from local farmers and integrates it into food served at the schools, and Mack will go to each campus to teach students about—and let them sample—each new item.

“Next month, we’re doing tri-colored baby carrots,” Mack said. “I’ll set up a booth showing the kids what you can do with them and give them a chance to see what it tastes like. If [the carrots] are just on the salad bar one day, kids won’t pick them up, because a purple carrot … that’s weird. But if we make it fun, put on a little show and give them a sticker, they get excited about trying something new.”

Another part of the FoodCorps program at CUSD is “Kids Cook Monday,” in which parents are invited to campus to eat a meal the children prepare based on foods they’ve grown themselves in the schools’ gardens.

Aside from those special events, Mack spends four days a week in the gardens with students in kindergarten through fifth grade. She started that part of the program last week and, though she’s the one charged with teaching the kids, Mack said she’s also learning as she goes.

“The first time you see a group of 15 kindergartners and first-graders charging at you, it’s kind of shocking,” she said, laughing. “I made lesson plans for the first two days but they went right out the window.

“It’s really up to the kids and up to what the garden is doing that day to determine what our days look like. We might see a bug and everyone will come see the bug, or we’ll see some things are ready to harvest and we’ll spend the day doing that.”

So far, some of the activities Mack has done with the students include planting radish seeds via relay race and making “one-bite salsa” from a fresh-picked tomato, green onion and some cilantro.

“They loved it,” she said of the salsa. “Some of them didn’t want to try the tomatoes at first, but after they ate it a few asked to take some home because their moms would love it, or if they could have seeds to grow their own salsa at home.”

Mack has already made steps to improve the gardens that serve as her classroom since she started at the beginning of the semester. She noted the garden at Citrus is particularly small, consisting of six planter boxes set on asphalt. Mack and O’Rear have arranged with the district to have more boxes built around the current perimeter, significantly enhancing the garden’s size.

The purpose for at least one of those beds has already been determined: “We went around the group and everyone named their favorite foods,” Mack said. “Most of them said pizza, so we’re going to plant a pizza garden so they can make their own.”