Pumped for Produce: Stories of Connecting Families with Fresh Food

Over the past year, Melissa Mardo has been serving as a JV AmeriCorps member in Spokane with Catholic Charities of Eastern Washington. Focusing on food access, her tales of cooking, teaching, and interacting with youth weren’t quite what she had initially envisioned when she began her service.

At Catholic Charities of Eastern Washington (Spokane), my JV AmeriCorps service is within the Food For All program. As a Community Food Resources Specialist, we aim to build better access to healthy, affordable food for vulnerable families by connecting them to the fruits of our local food system. Some of the ways I help connect families is with our produce delivery, since the food grown on our own 12,000 square foot farm is given to Catholic Charities Housing Communities. In addition, plant starts from our Buy-One Supply-One plant sale are donated to housing communities and local community gardens.

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Catholic Charities’ 12,000 square foot garden supplies residents with fresh produce.

I was able to spend time this year in Food For All’s greenhouse. After the annual plant sale, the next two weeks involved donating flowers and vegetable starts to Catholic Charities Housing Units and various community garden sites. I assisted with a planting event at a Catholic Charities Housing Unit whose primary residents are suffering from chronic homelessness. The residents were beyond excited for the cherry tomato plants and one person decided to test out the pumpkin plant in her two new garden beds. I talked with one woman who decided to try the abundantly-producing sungold tomatoes: her reasoning was that if people from the next-door homeless shelter were to enjoy some from her plant, she would still have some tomatoes leftover. She knew what it meant to be hungry so she remained optimistic while preparing her two new garden beds, even if there would be some uninvited visitors.  It is so easy for many of us to find excuses not to garden. “I’m tired” or “I don’t have time” are common refrains from many of us, yet knowing about probable plant destruction did not stop these residents from filling all 20 garden beds full with plant starts.

 

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Food prepared by children at the Hutton Settlement. Here, Melissa taught residents about healthy snack and dessert options.

During my time in Spokane, I was also able to visit Hutton Settlement, a children’s home, to bake squash bars for their culinary class. My initial assumption that children would disdain vegetables appeared to be true. As each child entered the room and heard we were using squash to create a dessert, they scrunched up their noses, stuck out their tongues, and whined, “Ewww.” I knew when I was younger I would have had the same reaction, but what surprised me is that every child was still willing to try the food. While initially hesitant about a vegetable-based “dessert,” being involved with the process made them invested in the outcome and they were ultimately curious to try these mysterious squash bars.

 

Throughout this year, I’ve loved meeting so many kids that love their vegetables. I run a kid’s booth at a farmer’s market where each week we offer a new activity related to exercise or nutrition and the children can earn $2 to spend at the market if they participate in the activity. The coupon is valid for fruits, vegetables, plant starts, or herbs. Each week the kids tell me they are excited to buy carrots or strawberries. Recently, a mother shared with me that the reason they visit the market each week is because her three kids are begging to do the new activity. While she talked with me, the kids debated whether to pool their money to buy radishes or each purchase a plant-start to add to their home garden. Since the children earn their own $2, they are excited to go shopping and buy a vegetable for themselves. The program allows us to empower children to use their money for fresh fruit and vegetables and feel included at farmer’s markets.

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Melissa works the KERNEL booth at a farmer’s market. Children are able to learn about companion planting and can take a basil plant home.

Whether it is trying a new food or starting a garden bed for the first time, I have witnessed everyone’s willingness to try this year. And I think we all can use some of that openness. It was easy to make assumptions entering into this service year. I wrongly thought that people would be uninterested in kale, rainbow chard, or turnips. This year, the places I deliver produce to and the parenting classes I coordinate have all requested that I bring more vegetables and fresh fruit. My JV AmeriCorps service at Food For All makes it possible for anyone to access more fruits and vegetables, thus increasing healthy food options throughout the community.    

 

 

 

 

AmeriCorps Week: Addressing Food Security at Wallace Medical Concern

Through JV AmeriCorps member Peter Fink’s (’17-18 Gresham, OR) experience serving as Community Health Specialist, he has learned that food insecurity greatly affects his patients’ health and well-being. Wanting to better understand and respond to this issue, Peter focused a recent project on designing and implementing a workflow to more efficiently track and address food insecurity for patients at Wallace Medical Concern. Read his story below.

As an American Studies and PreMed major in college, I have always been interested in the intersection between society and health; clearly, the social and physical environments we construct have profound impacts on our health and well-being. Toward the end of my senior year of college, I decided to apply for a deferral for medical school in order to get more “boots on the ground” experience in healthcare and learn more about these social and physical environments before I hit the books. I wanted to gain a better understanding of our complicated insurance system, improve my competency in Spanish, and get experience interacting with the many social determinants of health. This led me to apply for the JV AmeriCorps Community Health Specialist position at the Wallace Medical Concern, a federally-qualified health center in one of Eastern Portland’s poorest neighborhoods.

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JV AmeriCorps member Peter Fink and his Co-Worker Suzana

My time serving at Wallace Medical Concern has certainly highlighted for me that promoting health extends far outside the doctor’s office. Specifically, one of the most basic factors in people’s day-to-day health is simply having enough healthy food to eat. Food insecurity has wide ranging impacts on patients’ overall well-being, causing problems like malnourishment, chronic diseases like hypertension and diabetes, job insecurity, and behavioral health issues. In Oregon, 1 in 7 of our neighbors is food insecure; that is, you are more likely to meet someone who is food insecure than you are likely to meet someone who is left-handed. Right from the beginning of my service here, I knew I wanted to make a contribution toward addressing food security in our patient population, as I felt it was a feasible way to address more complicated issues we see more “upstream” from the problems themselves.

Thanks to great support from my Gresham community mates and  supervisor, I was able to do a lot of research on how other clinics have most successfully tracked and addressed food security for their patients. Using advice from online resources, the Oregon Food Bank, and other local clinics, I helped create a workflow that involves different types of employees in our clinic and is both feasible to implement and effective in practice.

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Peter and his Gresham JV community

Essentially, whereas before we entered the names of food-insecure patients into an Excel spreadsheet to cold-call, we now have our medical providers enter this information directly into our electronic medical records and do a warm hand-off referral to me directly after the patient’s medical visit to discuss food resources. I can then use the geographic information system I made using free online software to identify which food pantry in the area is the closest, best option for the patient to access. In addition, I can also refer them to contacts we have at other agencies to apply for SNAP benefits and discuss how to cook and prepare more nutritious meals.

Though it’s easy for me, as an inexperienced 23 year old, to get daunted by grand ideals like “promoting for human dignity,” I have come to see that starting with the basics– in this case, simply addressing the very basic need for food as a prerequisite for a flourishing and dignified life— can lead to encouraging results and deep fulfillment.  Although this new food tracking workflow is nothing grandiose, I am excited about its prospects for helping patients both economically and physically, and promoting dignity on a most fundamental and practical level.

AmeriCorps Week: Cultivating Roots in Grays Harbor, WA

This AmeriCorps Week, we’re highlighting JV AmeriCorps service throughout the Northwest. JV AmeriCorps member Megan Norris (Grays Harbor, WA ’15-16) describes how participation in the Cultivating Roots garden has strengthened the feeling of community with youth and economically disadvantaged community members in Grays Harbor, WA. We thank Megan for sharing her story of service and would like to acknowledge all current and former members who have so graciously served in our program.  

Community gardens are so much more than plants or produce. They have a social and community aspect rather unique to the culture of a shared outside space. They are a space which many people invest love and want to see succeed. The Cultivating Roots garden, where I serve through the agency Grays Harbor Public Health and Social Service Department,  is located within Pacific Court Housing Development. Pacific Court is low income housing under ownership of the Housing Authority of Grays Harbor.

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Megan excited to ‘get things done!’

The residents who live among and around the garden, if involved in it, have grown not only produce in the beds, but also affinity for the space. The neighborhood children are especially keen of the garden. Some of my favorite days of service are the ones where I arrive at the garden with the intention of tending to the beds only to be met with enthusiastic children ready to harvest, learn, and help.

One October afternoon I was met with a different emotion from one of the dedicated garden volunteers. At 8 years old, she is a fantastic helper and quick learner, but on this day, she had come to the garden as a place of solace. In tears, this garden volunteer choked out a simple question, “May I help you today? I had a rough day and really just want to be in the garden.” Over the next two hours, we chatted about her day and why she was crying; we talked about ways tomorrow could be a better day; and we got our hands messy in the garden beds.

Cultivating Roots Garden

Other children came and went from the garden that day, sharing smiles and well wishes. When the garden chores were finished, not only were there 14 lbs. of harvest to be distributed, but a strong sense of community filled the air. A day was bettered by spending time in the garden, and the garden gained a reputation as a safe place to come when one has a crummy day. I was reminded that day of how my time in the garden is service and that the garden being located in the Pacific Court development, a neighborhood where parents often have to work two shifts and is full of hard working and earnest people, is a great fit.

‘Tis the Season of Giving

JV AmeriCorps member Elizabeth Murphy (Spokane, WA ’14-16) shares her experience serving as Community Food Resource Specialist at the Catholic Charities of Spokane in Spokane, WA. Below, Murphy reflects on her favorite holiday, Thanksgiving, and the joy and excitement she feels for food and community. 

In the season of giving, I find that I receive so much. My experience over the past year has shown me how invigorating little victories can be. As I watch a child have her first taste of spinach, have a senior ask me, “what’s a smoothie,” or give someone a bag of arugula, their favorite vegetable, I am filled with joy in a cheesy excited way. I jokingly told one of my housemates Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, because everyone gets as excited about food as I am every day.  I try to carry the joy and comfort of sharing a meal with family and friends into an everyday tradition.

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Elizabeth Murphy at the Acorn Squash Harvest at Food For All Farm

Serving at the same placement in Spokane for two years has allowed me to grow and deepen in relationship with the people I serve. Weekly, I deliver produce to St. Margaret’s Women and Children’s Shelter residents.  Last week, an alumni of our program stopped by to drop off her “Christmas Blessings form” for her and her son, and I offered her a bunch of bananas. She ecstatically said, “Love! My baby is going to love this!” When the same mom was living in the shelter in the spring, I remember her calling asking me to, “please save me and my baby food from the community kitchen!” I get so excited when other people get excited about fruits and vegetables!  Even through the simple pleasure of a bunch of bananas, I am lucky to connect with moms and kids who in turn make me excited to continue serving at my placement.

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Delicious food served at a dinner at St. Margaret’s Women and Children’s Shelter

Last winter, I began serving with residents at Fr. Bach Haven housing for previously chronically-homeless men and women. We had a community kitchen cooking class and nutrition education series that allowed me to continue serving in the springtime. With another community partner, we hosted a garden-themed lunch and gardening class one week and the following week planted garden pots in front of their building. Since I decided to stay a as a JV year here second year, I was happy I could continue to serve with their case manager to plan a harvest-themed potluck for residents this fall and eat the fruits of our labor. I brought food from our program’s Food for All Farm and residents brought food from their garden pots. There’s a special connection that comes from working the soil, preparing a meal, and sharing a meal together.

Another program within Catholic Charities is called Senior Services through which I was matched with a low-income senior who I’ll call Sam (not her real name). I get to go to her apartment every week, make a meal with her, and we share that meal together. Sometimes we even go on field trips! Twice this summer I was able to take her to the farmers market so she could spend her senior farmers market nutrition program checks (which the Food for All program distributes in Spokane). Even though Sam is away from her family and on a tight budget, she has such a joyful presence and zest for life. I love my weekly visits with Sam. She always makes me laugh, gives me hugs, and loves every meal we make together (especially butternut squash soup). This year, I get to spend my Thanksgiving sharing a meal with her, another one of the reasons I am so happy to continue serving at my placement and deepen the relationships I’ve made over the past year.

Feeding Hunger for Food and Community

JV AmeriCorps member Sarah Moore (Grays Harbor, WA ’14-15) shares her experience serving as Early Learning Specialist at the YMCA of Grays Harbor in Washington. Below, Moore reflects on her involvement with the Park and Play program.

Last summer, the YMCA of Grays Harbor partnered with the Aberdeen School District to provide a strong program for children that combines food and fun. Each day, our Park and Play program served anywhere between 50 to 150 lunches and snacks to kids at three parks in town.

It was obvious after only a few weeks of programming that these children are in great need of food. Without these lunches, many children would go without food or without proper nutrition. However, I think there is a greater hunger than for food among these children: there is a hunger for community, for friendship, and for opportunity.

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Sarah (far right) and her Gray’s Harbor JV AmeriCorps member community mates

After being given a lunch packed with a sandwich, fruits, vegetables, chips, and milk, the kids grabbed a seat around the park, usually at a picnic table. With only a few picnic tables available, kids often ended up eating with new friends. Conversation usually started about what was in the lunch that day: what they like, don’t like, or have never tried before. At times, there were even proposed trades for an extra bag of chips.

Food was only the starting point for finding commonalities among new friends. The conversations quickly evolved from food to what game or activity we would play after eating or even details about life at home or school. Conversation continued as we brought out rubber bands to make bracelets, play dough, or paint. We cheered for one another through hula-hoop contests, hand games, and running races. Through it all we learned each other’s names, languages, and stories. I believe this is the greatest thing we have to offer at the parks.

After only a few weeks of the Park and Play program, I was convinced that it was the moments shared around the table and beyond that kept the kids coming back day after day and staying for the duration of the program. Yes—we were hungry for food. But the food spoke to a hunger that was deeper; a hunger to be present with one another, to play, to laugh, to share, and to build relationships.

Living with the Land and Building Community

JV AmeriCorps member Sarah Komisar serves at the Sitka Conservation Society in Sitka, Alaska. Below Komisar shares her experience teaching Sitka’s youth how to live with the land and build community through the processing of deer. 

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Miller explains how to process deer while respecting animals and native traditions. Photo by Bethany Goodrich

Living with the land and building community can be done in many ways. As a JV AmeriCorps member at The Sitka Conservation Society (SCS), my placement included working with the Alaska Way of Life 4-H program. During January of 2015, SCS and Sitka Native Education Program (SNEP) partnered to teach Sitka’s youth how to process one of Sitka’s local bounties: deer. The children from the 4-H program and SNEP Culture Class learned from Chuck Miller, SNEP Youth Program Coordinator, more than just how to butcher a deer as he removed the hide from the animal.

Miller shared with students the customary traditional practices of deer processing. Right away, Miller said, “It is important to not waste, and it is disrespectful to the animal to say ‘eww’ or ‘that’s gross’ because that animal gave up its life for you, so you can live.”

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Students learn how to wrap meat in freezer paper. Photo by Bethany Goodrich

The children were certainly not squeamish. No ‘ew’s resounded from the audience of eager and fascinated onlookers. The first thing he pointed out was that the head of the deer was missing. Chuck explained that the brain of the deer could be mixed with urine and used to tan the hides long ago. The children learned that the hoofs could be boiled down and used for rattling sticks to dance with. The hide was removed carefully, and the kids discovered that it could be used for clothing or drums. The children eagerly peered over each other to get a look at the deer’s heart, liver, and stomach. Chuck explained that the tendons are so strong that they have been used for battle armor, dream catchers, and to latch many other things together.

The class also discussed the Alaska Department of Fish and Game regulations and the importance of limitations on does for protecting fawns to conserve the population.

Miller shared with students how to respect the animal by properly processing the meat, as well as by not wasting parts of the deer. He then explained how respecting the animal transfers to respect for the community: the first deer of the year you get should never be kept to yourself.

“You give it away to somebody who is a widow, an elder, or both. You want to make sure you take care of people in the community who cannot hunt for themselves and our elders.” One of the boys in the group whispered to his friend, “I’ll give it to my grandma.”

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Deer processing complete! Photo by Bethany Goodrich

The class was able to see the deer processing steps all the way from removing the hide to wrapping the meat in freezer paper. The kids shared stories of their own deer hunting experiences and favorite recipes as they packaged the meat. Students were enthralled and walked away with both a practical understanding of the deer butchering process as well as a stronger respect for this treasured resource.

The Sitka Conservation Society looks forward to partnering with the Sitka Native Education Program in the future to teach Sitka’s youth how to live with the land and build community.