This blog post is written by Robyn Wardell, former FoodCorps service member and current FoodCorps Fellow in Michigan.

Would my students get the most out of planting in the garden today or having a cooking class? Should I spend the next few hours trying to contact Ms. King, the food service director, or should I really use this time to turn the compost at Eisenhower Elementary? Last year, as a FoodCorps service member, I wrestled with these questions as I spent my time divided amongst classroom taste tests of fruits and vegetables, school garden education and maintenance, building a relationship with the district food service director, and a handful of other projects. I was the only service member in Flint, Michigan, and I often struggled with how to focus my energies when there were so many ways to engage kids with food.  How could I prioritize giving kids access to healthy food in the cafeteria versus hands-on gardening experiences when both are integral pieces of the puzzle?

Two FoodCorps service members with the Michigan Land Use Institute in Traverse City have overcome some of these hurdles by serving together in a pair, and by focusing on their own personal strengths and passions. Though they have proven themselves to be effective educators on their own, Kirsten and Daniel have found their stride in their second year of service through effective teamwork. They have learned to play on one another’s complementary strengths and as a result, their students are asking their parents to buy beets at home, food service directors are building relationships with local farmers, and kids are teaching each other how to make kale smoothies.

Kirsten comes from a background in urban agriculture and always assumed that people living in rural farming areas had access to good food. However, when she moved to rural northwest lower Michigan for her service, she observed a more complicated reality. Instead, “a lot of the cherries and corn [grown here] get shipped away and are not consumed by the people here.” So, Kirsten focuses her efforts on gardening with students, teaching kids to grow food and enjoy it themselves, rather than watch it get shipped away. She gets the most joy out of her service when she is with her students in the garden, because that’s, “where you see the most impact.” After her students grow their own food from seed, they are much more open to tasting new foods, and often say things like “I love EVERYTHING we try with you!” It’s this kind of hands-on education that leads to parents being dumbfounded that their kids are trying winter squash and loving it, asking Kirsten, “How did you do it?”

While Kirsten’s role focuses on engaging students in school gardens, Daniel is more involved in procuring local foods for the school cafeterias, or as Kirsten puts it, “I’m more of the gardener/farmer, and Daniel is more of the chef/lunch-lady-guy.” Daniel makes contact with the school food service to plan the purchasing of local ingredients, assisting in recipe development and food prep while also building bridges between food service and classroom learning. He and Kirsten develop their lessons together in order to ensure that if Kirsten is planting kale in the garden, Daniel is making sure massaged kale salad is being served that day. They even team up to bring samples right into the garden while the seeds are going into the ground. This way, students have some experience with new foods before they encounter them on their lunch tray.

After over a year and a half of service, Kirsten and Daniel’s combined work has led to the construction or revitalization of 8 gardens, to nearly 3,300 kids served, and 29 new local ingredients showing up on the lunch line. It has led to food service directors picking up the phone to call local apple and carrot farmers on their own and directly purchase products. While getting his hair cut one day, someone overheard Daniel talking about a lesson he had been teaching and inquired, "You’ve been over to Platte River Elementary haven't you?" After confirming her suspicion, she began to tell him that her son Cory had come home a few weeks ago requesting to go to the grocery store and purchase beets, which he has been eating raw.

Kirsten and Daniel have been able to accomplish a great deal through working together, but they are sure to tell you that they are not doing it alone. Over the course of their service, they have engaged over 90 volunteers on different projects. They appreciate how important it is to involve community members and know that in order to make a lasting impact, more people need to be engaged in improving school food. So, they call on you to have direct engagement with school lunch programs through getting in touch with your local school’s food service director to express your desire for more fresh, local, healthy school food options. A lot of people get frustrated because school lunch options aren’t good enough from their point of view, “but, the only way to change that is by talking with people who are in that world- show that you care about what is on the menu and that you care about what is being served,” Kirsten says. If you aren’t sure of how to make yourself the most useful, Daniel recommends choosing, “whatever it is that gets you excited as a way of offering your talents to a school. That might mean to come in and demonstrate a family recipe to your child’s class. If you have a real interest in long-term change, the best way to do that is changing it day to day.”

Just as Kirsten’s passion for growing food and Daniel’s love of cooking have been an asset to their schools, your personal interests can be incredibly productive tools for your community. We make the biggest impact when we utilize everyone’s strengths to their fullest potential, be that a dynamic duo with complementary skills, or an entire community that offers a diversity and wealth of knowledge, talents, and interests.

What seeds are you sowing to serve healthy foods to students in your community?