A powerful team of farm-to-cafeteria leaders from all over Connecticut gathered at Common Ground on September 11, 2014 to share a farm-fresh meal. Together, seasoned chefs, farmers, environmental educators, hunger relief activists, teachers, and Americorps service members excitedly shared plans to build and tend school gardens, teach nutrition education in schools, and source locally produced foods into school cafeterias. This shared vision of helping children grow up healthy by connecting them to real food is at the heart of these professionals’ work with FoodCorps.
Founded in 2009, FoodCorps is a nationwide team of 182 Americorps leaders from 17 different states, including 15 Americorps members serving in the state of Connecticut. Over the next 11 months, these 15 FoodCorps workers will serve in limited-resource school districts across the state, teaching hands on lessons about food and nutrition; building and tending sustainable school gardens; hosting cooking classes so children can taste the fresh food they’ve grown; and changing what’s on children’s lunch trays by sourcing healthy food from local farms.
The state-wide work of the Connecticut FoodCorps team is overseen by the University of Connecticut Cooperative Extension Service, and supported by Common Ground, which acts as a fiscal sponsor and helps train new FoodCorps members. This statewide ‘host site’ provides support to the 15 local service sites such as Common Ground and the New Haven Public Schools Central Kitchen, where the FoodCorps service members are hosted locally. As a result, FoodCorps members are able to act as independent “boots on the ground” within their own communities, while also marching in alliance with a greater national call to reform our nation’s food chain from field to table.
During their visit to Common Ground, FoodCorps service members and board members had the opportunity to tour the urban farm and experience what it takes to turn farm-fresh produce into a healthy, free lunch for every Common Ground high school student and staff member. On the other side of the 20-acre site, service members explored the learning-based children’s garden. Small, green signs reading, “Ready To Eat!” encouraged members to taste, smell, and touch the bounty of fruits, vegetables, and herbs surrounding them.
As they strolled through the labyrinth of small garden beds, Tiffany Torres, the second-year service member at Common Ground, highlighted various elements such as the “dig box” –- a place where children can openly interact with worms and other insects – and the “garden classroom” –- a cluster of stumps located under a peach tree where children gather before engaging in their garden-based activities. “Sensory gardens like this,” she explained, “provide ample opportunity for children to develop life-long relationships with nature through place-based, hands-on experiences outdoors.”
As the group gathered around picnic tables adjacent to a pen of sheep and goats grazing under the warm autumn sun, it became abundantly clear why they were all there together. The mission of Common Ground is to cultivate habits of healthy living and sustainable environmental practice among a diverse community of children, families, and adults FoodCorps’ vision is a natural match, as they strive to create a nation of well-nourished children: children who know what healthy food is, how it grows and where it comes from, and who have access to it every day. These children, having grown up in a healthy food environment, will learn better, live longer, and liberate their generation from diet-related disease.
This unique partnership ensures that nobody has to reinvent the wheel. Tiffany Torres, Common Ground’s FoodCorps service member, has experienced these benefits first-hand as she’s worked alongside the Connecticut School Garden Resource Center at Common Ground.
With the Connecticut School Garden Resource Center, Tiffany supports the creation and effective use of educational vegetable gardens in schools throughout New Haven. In her second year as a FoodCorps service member, she is helping develop professional learning opportunities for school garden coordinators in the hope of making their school gardens fully integrated and sustainable elements of their schools’ culture. Ultimately, the Connecticut School Garden Resource Center is building a network of school garden enthusiasts across the state. Many of these leaders will come together in person when the Connecticut School Garden Resource Center at Common Ground hosts the next Farm-To-Cafeteria Conference in April, 2015.