Cooking for the Community at Forest Grove Elementary

One of the main goals of any school garden program is to grow food in a school garden that can be used in the school’s lunch program. I knew this from the very beginning of Sprouting Chefs but also knew that the size of our garden at Forest Grove was not nearly big enough to produce enough food for the whole school…or was it?

Sometimes monumental tasks take a different kind of thinking and approach.

The school garden grows a few things in abundance:

Kale, Chard, Salad Greens at certain times of the year, Tomatilos, Garlic and Herbs

All these ingredients if combined the right way with some supplements like pasta could create a meal that the community could enjoy.

In October 2016, the school was provided funding via the Metropolis at Metrotown Community Investment Fund that allowed Sprouting Chefs to provide support to the garden over the summer of 2016 to properly maintain, harvest and plant more crops for the Fall of 2016’s Cooking Classes as well as Spring Seed Gardening Classes and another set of Cooking Classes for the Primary Students.

With this in mind, there was an intention to finally connect the food growing in the garden with a lunch provided to the entire school…for FREE.

In the Spring of 2016, the school Principal, Al Post and I set out a plan that would create an event to connect the community to the garden and the food we are growing there. Event ideas ranged from a school market to having a guest speaker come in to speak about the importance of eating locally and seasonally. We engaged our partners at Whole Foods to provide what the garden could not as well as other community groups to be a part of this event.

Cooking Classes were to be provided to 5 Intermediate classes that would highlight a combination of what was available in the garden as well as what was seasonally and locally available. Recipes included: side dishes to serve at Thanksgiving, a food preservation class featuring the tomatillos and making the tomatilo salsa we normally sell at the Christmas Craft Fair which was not happening this year.

Ok, so part of the reason we really needed to create an event was to be able to sell the salsa at all since we grew and harvested so many tomatilos over the summer! Salsa was sold after school the day we had our lunch as expected, it sold out due to the fact the kids not only helped grow the tomatillos, they also helped make the salsa!

What I decided to do was to choose a handful of students out of these 5 classes that would then help me cook for the entire school at the end of the week. This actually worked really well to set the tone of the classes and create a good behavioral management tool for each class. By starting the class talking about the fact I was looking for students who demonstrated responsibility, leadership, a willingness to serve as well as strong cooking skills, the tone of the class dramatically shifted. At the end of each of the 5 classes, several students approached me to help out.

The easiest thing I could think of that would also incorporate what was available from the garden was a Tomato Pasta. Tomatoes were harvested and frozen, garlic was harvested and cured earlier in the summer and managed to hold very well until October. Salad greens, chard and kale could be used as a salad.

A donation of a gift card was provided by Whole Foods which allowed us to purchase ingredients for the 5 Cooking Classes as well as a few things needed for the end of week lunch. Pasta and canned tomatoes were donated by our friends at Ciolfi’s as well. Funding was provided to Sprouting Chefs in the Spring for whatever else was needed including disposables to serve the lunch.

In the end, about 25 students were chosen out of close to 100 kids. The recipe for the Tomato Pasta was broken down into tasks the kids could take on including: chopping onions, peeling and chopping garlic, cutting basil, grating cheese, making the tomato sauce, harvesting salad greens from the garden, making a dressing for the salad, serving the meal to the students in the school as well as clearing and cleaning.

The Hot Lunch Coordinator of the school provided the parent volunteers needed to help in the kitchen and set up the school gym. Two seating times were chosen to serve half the school at 11:30 am and the other half at noon.

Focus was placed on the students helping where they would do most of the food preparation and cooking while the parents provided the set up and support. This allowed the an opportunity for the kids from the Cooking Classes a real chance to shine. It was amazing to see how many kids wanted to stay for the entire event to not only help with the food preparation but also the clean up too!

There was a real sense of school community pride that was created as a result. For every child that didn’t necessarily like the lunch for one reason or another, there were many children who came up and asked for seconds, thirds and fourth helpings. Only one student asked for plain pasta so all the others had pasta with the tomato sauce.

What I do regret was not speaking at the event when I had the chance. Overwhelmed by the day and not having anything prepared, I can reflect back now and be able to at least say I am most proud of all the kids that happily and willingly participated, who served with the true sense of generosity where they did not expect anything in return. I am proud that despite not knowing exactly how much to make, if we had enough at all or if it would not work out, that faith in the school community and the intention of providing this meal carried me through.

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Will we do it again? I really hope so. Will it be the same recipe? Perhaps but with a new batch of equally eager students ready to shine their light into the world through the creation of a meal.

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Walking the Path – Building a School Labyrinth

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As I sit here today with a pile of “to do’s” on my never ending list of to do’s, I am feeling called to share the experiences of the past month or so. Walking the path, as this title implies, not only means walking the path a labyrinth design creates to find the inner meaning of it all but also walking the path of my truth and what it means to create something that was not there before and also how to sustain it. In simplier terms, creating garden programs is one thing, walking the path it takes to sustain them is something else entirely.

I look back on this past month or so in awe. Between building and talking about the labyrinth with most of the Forest Grove Elementary school population, planting seeds in 2 school gardens with all 10 and 12 classes, teaching 4 cooking classes and recruiting volunteers, you can hopefully appreciate why it’s taken me so long to post anything in a blog. Choosing what to post is the challenge so I’m choosing to follow my heart with this one and write about the most important lessons I’ve learned through all these various experiences.

Be Open But Listen to Your Heart

Building a labyrinth with a group of 4 to 5 class groups who have never done this before can create a lot of hesitation. Staying open to how everything unfolds and to trust in the unknowing process has worked wonders. It allows for us to make mistakes and to learn from them as well as being open to our greatness too. All along the way we kept in mind we had never done this before which in my mind meant, I’m giving myself a break and not choosing perfection. That was a tough lesson for sure coming from someone who never joined the track team because I knew I’d never win a race.

Working with a group of people who were looking to me for guidance, I had to stay open to the guidance and from wherever it came from. In the end though, I had to also listen to my gut and heart when it came to making a decision about anything. When things click, when you receive an instinctual knowing of what to do next, you have to trust that.

Guiding the group of students through the experience of building the labyrinth, there was one basic principle I wanted to instill in everyone’s mind. This was a very important task we were all about to under take. One that would not be entered into lightly or with any sense of disrespect. As the first group of students literally were laying down the soil, the very foundation for the design, I told them they were to walk into this space with a sense of reverence for they were given the task of being the first to create a tool that would be used by many including themselves to find peace and happiness. The energy they brought into the green space was to be the energy of respect and honor.

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The Grade 7 class were given a math problem to create the circuits of the circular designs of the labyrinth. We knew that this was not an easy problem for the entire group after speaking with the teacher. It wasn’t expected that all would participate but I trusted that those who would know what to do would be enough and could then be teachers to others who needed help with the problem.

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As soon as a group of students knew what to do, they were given the large scale compass to draw out the circuits in the soil. All the other students were simply gathered around to witness their actions. That was enough, I felt to be a part of the project.

After the circuits were drawn out into the soil, another group laid the lime into the design to mark the circuits clearly so the next group could then dig out some of the soil and lay coarse sand into the area which would remain after the grass grew in for the pathways.

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It took many hands and many explanations throughout the day of the actual creation and build of the labyrinth with groups of classes, helpers and various volunteers.

What struck me the most was when we as adults stood with the students in silence before we started. I found grounding us all as a large group was necessary as the whole process could have been chaotic and confusing otherwise. This was not a normal class project after all and the kids often came to us with too much energy.

Circling them around me I asked them to close their eyes and feel their feet, taking in big deep breaths from the ground up. This brought them into a calm state but I also recognized there was a definite vulnerability here with many of the students. Asking a group “to close their eyes” can bring up a lot of issues…who else is closing their eyes? is this cool? is this funny? why are we doing this? All these questions and emotions could be seen from the centre of the circle where I was standing. It was clear who had done this sort of thing before, trusted in the process and got right into deep breathing and centering. Amazing. The others…well, maturity has its perks!

No pictures of that moment. None needed really. Centering a group of kids will be chalked up to a moment to remember as one where I can remember a great power and responsibility too.

Moments to Shine, Lead and Follow

When the kids set to task, when they understood what they were doing and more importantly, why they were doing what they were doing really became clear when a couple of the groups were able to walk the labyrinth paths as a group. After explaining about what it means to have an intention before they started, I lead them through with steps of purpose making it clear with the pace I set that this was not a race. No one was allowed to pass the person in front of them out of respect and as students left the circuits, the ones coming into the space, need to step aside to allow other students to pass with ease.

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Have Faith In the Process

Not every student completely engaged with this project as I mentioned before. The majority from what I could tell, understood what they were doing, watched or really took over a certain part of what needed to be done from shoveling sand, directing others what to do and where to go with said sand and making sure everyone was also doing what they needed to do. There were some that seemed distracted and disengaged.

The teachers and I made small notes and one teacher was so concerned about a particular student, she made an effort to get this student to be a part of things by asking her to do a certain task. I noted this and as I am a sensitive person, also noted the discomfort this student had when she was approached.

Later in the day, this same quiet girl came back to the labyrinth in between classes. Her class was brought out for a music class to play soccer. No idea why the music teacher brings them outside to play soccer but needless to say, this student who didn’t care to engage much with her fellow students was once again off to the side of things. She came to me and asked if it would be alright to walk the labyrinth as she hadn’t had the chance yet being in the first group who only leveled the soil. I of course said yes.

Watching her was a gift. I had only explained to her via the whole school assembly how to walk the paths and she instinctively knew how to herself. She came to the centre, closed her eyes, turned her face up to the sky, with the palms of her hands facing upwards as if to ask for guidance. When she came out, she came to me and said “I went into the labyrinth missing my mom and brother (she is a foster child). When I came to the centre, two animals appeared to me; an eagle and a wolf. I don’t know what that means but I have a pain on my side now.” Not fully knowing what to say I suggested walking the paths again with the intention of releasing the pain on her side and asking for guidance as to what the animals represent.

She promptly went back into the space and walked the paths two more times. Afterwards she told me that the eagle was her mother; ever present with her, giving her guidance and the wolf was her brother; sometimes good sometimes bad but also always with her too. To say that I was overwhelmed myself with this story she chose to share with me would be a massive understatement. I told her that I was so honored to have witnessed her walk and felt so grateful she chose to share her experience with me. Then off she went, to be with her 2 other friends to watch the rest of the class play soccer in the field as I almost fell over!

Not every student is going to have this kind of experience. We know this. Having one student find peace out of 270 is enough for me.

Not every parent is going to understand why we need this at all. One parent even questioned after months of explanation of what the labyrinth was meant for, what it was meant for. They even questioned if it was a religious tool as if they had not heard or read anything we had been sharing. But one parent hugged me in relief and gratitude for all I was doing and bringing this tool to the school at all. Many others really are beginning to understand it.

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It’s only been a  month and there is no way to measure the impacts this project has had to the school community.

We still have phase 2 to go which includes engraving some stones and inlaying them into the 4 corners of the labyrinth for reflection stations of Peace, Love, Gratitude and Forgiveness the 4 most important virtues I believe. We also would like to have the “Big Rock” engraved with the other virtues we have around the garden at the base of the rock. And we need a good plaque or sign that explains what the labyrinth is at all. Fundraising for this part of it will be a task but I have faith it will all come together exactly when it should.

We have also had an amazing outdoor yoga session with Child’s Pose Yoga and the lovely Dana Mahon during a Garden Club on May 2nd; barefoot on colorful mats, complete with eye pillows and a marvelous pom pom wand.

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An official opening ceremony at the school is being planned for the Fall 2014. So as always, more to come!