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FoodCorps Hawai’i: A Year (and some) in Review

January 10, 2017
By: Stephanie Loui, Food Corps Hawaiʻi Service Member

Explaining my job depends on who I am talking to. For the briefest of introductions, I describe myself as a nutrition and garden educator. Sometimes, I am a teacher. Sometimes, I am a non-profit program coordinator. Occasionally I organize family events. I host taste tests with students, help to grow school gardens, and sometimes bring composting worms for show and tell. I wear a lot of hats in my job as a FoodCorps Service Member with Kōkua Hawaiʻi Foundation’s ʻĀINA In Schools program, but what remains constant is the goal of helping Hawaiʻi’s keiki to make healthy choices around their food and environment. If this sounds like you, consider applying and help us to grow the FoodCorps team! The deadline to apply is March 15th, 2017.

Here’s a snapshot of my year of service with Kōkua Hawaiʻi Foundation’s ʻĀINA In Schools Program at three Oʻahu schools. If you’d like to learn more, e-mail me at [email protected] or check out FoodCorp’s website to learn about their mission, goals, and ways to support healthy kids in schools.

August 2015, Portland, OR

It is the first day of FoodCorps National Orientation and Service Members from around the country are gathering in Portland, united by a powerful notion: that all children, no matter their socioeconomic or geographical circumstance, have access to healthy food in school.

Never in my life have I seen so many people rush a salad bar. I didn’t even know tattoos of vegetables were a thing. And until I joined FoodCorps and met the other 200 or so people drawn by the same mission, I really did not know if what I loved to do—grow my own food, prepare nourishing meals, and share with others—could ever translate to a job. Orientation week is a whirlwind of speed-dating names, passions, and goals, meeting the most influential voices of the Farm to School movement, and most of all, at least for me, reveling in the affirmation that food is indeed medicine, that it does connect us all to each other and our environment, and that our ability to access healthy, nourishing food is crucial to our communities.

Orientation week is also when you meet your State Cohort—the other Service Members you will work closely with throughout the year. The Hawaiʻi cohort, a group of nine Service Members spread across Hawaiʻi Island and Oʻahu, has become a second ‘ohana for me. Though we are each at different Service Sites, we are in constant communication, supporting one another, exchanging ideas, and sharing our experiences.

September 2015, North Shore, HI

With lesson plans, seed packets, and recipes at the ready, my first month of service involves little actual planting and cooking but is instead a lesson in name games, directions, and finding allies. I meet the Kokua Hawaiʻi Foundation staff who will be my mentors and collaborators as I begin to navigate the world of school health and wellness and ʻĀINA In Schools, their farm to school initiative that connects children to their local land, waters, and food to grow a healthier Hawaiʻi. I meet principals, VP’s, teachers and docents from the three schools where I serve, planning with the ‘ĀINA teams for a successful year of growth.

Before getting my hands in the dirt and sinking in, it is crucial to meet the key players and really understand what a school needs. The planning period for the garden and nutrition program is underway. Like healthy soil, it is an important foundation to lay before growing school gardens.

October 2015, Kahaluʻu, HI

In addition to National Orientation, FoodCorps also provides in-state training with cultural practitioners, educators, local farmers, and other state partners who offer crucial context to the hands-on education Service Members provide in schools. On our first day of orientation, I find myself two valleys and 10 minutes away from my home, learning how to kuʻi kalo from a local farmer. He tells us the legend of the origin of the taro plant and its significance to Hawaiian culture. We pound poi while talking story, learning about food safety practices, and sharing knowledge of Hawaiian medicine plants. At the end, we combine all of our poi and say our goodbyes. Over the next few days of orientation, our ‘umeke of poi follows us around Oʻahu, nourishing us and reminding us that feeding our communities is a group effort.

We receive curricula and training from my service site and the ‘ĀINA In Schools team, which provides us with rich resources for lesson planning and mapping out a year of gardening, nutrition, and composting. These resources have been provided to hundreds of volunteers and teachers and Kōkua Hawaiʻi Foundation continues to train both docents and educators across the islands who want to take hands-on learning beyond the classroom.

November-December 2015, Kahuku, HI

By now, I’m in the swing of things, armed with tools, a Vitamix and purpose and my goals are set. I know when recess is, which teachers do and do not like to talk during their lunch break, and how to hold an ʻĀINA Team meeting so that everyone shows up… (the answer is snacks). I am teaching the ‘ĀINA In Schools nutrition and garden curriculum, writing grants for schools, working on Family events with the PCNC and Title I Coordinator, and leading an after school Garden Club. Seeds are beginning to sprout, students are visiting the garden on a daily basis, and the tiniest seed of an idea—that we can grow our own fresh, delicious food—is germinating in student minds.

January 2016, Santa Cruz, CA

With one semester under my belt, I am figuring out the teaching, assisting, garden maintenance and outreach juggle of being a Service Member. At the end of the month, I embark on a week-long trip to Santa Cruz to join the rest of the Western Region Service Members at a mid-year gathering. This second, smaller orientation, nestled in the redwoods, is a chance to catch our breath, reflect, and meditate. We share stories, ideas, challenges, and successes. We hear from inspiring speakers and brilliant educators. By the end of the week, I have pages of notes and plans to take back to my three schools.

February-March 2016, Kahuku, HI

I am now a recognizable feature of the school campus scenery and even those who do not know my name still wave to “the Snack Lady” or “Aunty ‘Āina”. Teachers who may not have known why I am there now approach me with project ideas and cooking requests. Sometimes, I find student thank-you notes in my campus mailbox. Having gained trust and buy-in, I am beginning to find collaborators. We host a successful Family Wellness Night with green smoothies. We begin planning for the implementation of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable snack grant . We are gaining momentum.

April-May 2016, Kahuku, HI

April is Earth Month and to celebrate, the ‘ĀINA In Schools program helps to bring Chef Visits and Kuʻi Demos to Hawaiʻi schools, in order to help bridge the connection between healthy, locally grown food and the practitioners who help transform it into ‘ono food. This month, in addition to regular classes, I work closely with 3rd grade teachers to schedule a visit from a neighboring Chef, including a delicious macadamia nut chicken recipe and many requests for seconds.

The 1st grade teacher team plans a “Ninja Cooking Week” with their students, utilizing a KHF Mini-Grant to fund a weeklong celebration of healthy food, art, and writing. Here, I am not the leader, but simply a spectator and photographer and the feeling of pride, of excitement over the teacher’s initiative, is just as exciting as if I were in the front of the class. The word has since spread to other grades and “Ninja Cooking Week” is scheduled to become an annual 1st grade event.

June-July 2016, North Shore, HI

The 11-month commitment of FoodCorps is coming to a close. Some Service Members will continue into a second year while others will move on to other career opportunities such as teaching, food policy, start-ups, and more. Schools are out of session and it is a time to reflect, regroup, and make decisions for the following school year. I work on compiling my experience into resource guides for other garden educators, including snapshots from the year, games and recipes, and other ideas for outdoor education with students. I have the opportunity to stay on with Kōkua Hawaiʻi Foundation for a second year, to continue supporting teachers, building gardens, and working closely with mentors and friends.

I apply for a second year. I have healthy schools to grow.

2017 and Beyond!

I am pleased to say that I am still with FoodCorps Hawaiʻi, in my second and final year of service with Kōkua Hawaiʻi Foundation which will culminate on July 31st, 2017. The invaluable lessons I have learned, the people I have met, and the direction this work has given me continue to amaze me. When I finish FoodCorps, I will move on with experience in non-profit programming, education, and farming. I will have an education grant to help me pursue further learning if I choose. But most of all, I will have an invaluable experience under my belt, and a healthy foundation from which to grow.