I want to get on my “seed box” for a minute about a topic that shouldn’t be a topic in one of the richest countries in the world – childhood hunger. Arkansas has the highest rate of childhood hunger in the nation. At the same time, approximately 38 percent of Arkansas students have been found to be overweight or at risk of being overweight each school year. My recent visit to Northwest Arkansas and the Apple Seeds afterschool program introduced me to those baffling statistics, but also made me wonder “how do we fix it?”
According to Beth Ashbaugh, executive director of Apple Seeds, it’s all about community buy-in.
Apple Seeds is an after-school program based in three Fayetteville schools that focuses on creating healthy lifestyles for students and their families. School gardens, cooking, field trips, and farm-to-fork initiatives are what make healthy living come alive for these students. Their hands-on activities help teach them to make lifelong nutritious food choices and to create a sustainable food system.
“Gardening is just the catalyst to get the kids interested in something they wouldn’t be likely to care about otherwise,” said Lucy Kagan, an AmeriCorp VISTA volunteer and the Plant to Plate coordinator for Apple Seeds.
At Owl Creek Elementary, one of the afterschool gardening programs, there are six adult volunteers that make the program a success. They have students work in the gardens, write about what they’re seeing, cook with the ingredients that they’ve grown, and eat these healthy snacks.
“The organization has been growing and empowering healthy children for seven years, but we saw a huge jump in the impact of the program once we started getting more community participation,” Ashbaugh said.
While Ashbaugh organizes the gardens and shows kids how to plant, she says that it’s the knowledge of the other program leaders that truly brings that information to life. A local chef teaches the students’ parents how to cook simple, healthy meals, the 5th grade science teacher uses the gardens as a lab for the students, and the school nurse instructs the kids on fitness and healthy living choices.
“Our mission can go so much farther when other people, especially experts, offer their skills,” Ashbaugh said. “One of our goals is to find community partners that we can set up with the resources that they need and support them. They, in turn, support these kids.”
Kagan’s goal is for every child to know where his or her food comes from, and she thinks the program is making that a reality.
“The change in attitudes that you see from kids after three weeks of working in a garden is amazing,” she said. “There’s an attitude of positive peer pressure with ‘who can eat the weirdest thing’ and the students see a connection with their bodies and what they eat. You never know what will lead kids to make better eating choices in the future, but it’s happening here every day.”
Just witnessing the program in action was an inspiration, but like Kagan and Ashbaugh pointed out, “there’s something like this in every community- it’s going mainstream now.”
“People are looking for alternatives. The economy is weak, we have more access to information about good foods versus bad foods, and people want to know about and cook their own food. They just need a little guidance and advice, and we can do that.”
I encourage you to reach out to these types of programs in your own community. You never know how your skills might help create healthier lives.
Years ago rural homeowners were encouraged to plant windbreaks on the north and west sides of their home to save energy and create wildlife habitat. I don’t have the space to plant double rows of large evergreens. Are there some other ways I can get some protection and still provide the wildlife benefits?
It’s true that by incorporating certain design elements into your landscape design, you can help control the comfort level and energy efficiency of your indoor and outdoor living areas. Windbreaks are a practice that have been in use for quite some time and as we all feel the need to do our part to save energy, they are still quite beneficial.
I love the idea of a windbreak pulling double duty by using plants that offer food and shelter for wildlife. Not only are you helping the birds and other animals in your area, but you will find that such a spot in your garden will offer many hours of enjoyment that’s more entertaining than watching TV.
There are several alternatives for those who do not have the space for traditional double row windbreaks. A single row of evergreen trees installed on the northwest side of your home provides some benefit. When there is room for only one row of trees, try to pick ones that retain their lower branches and are suitable for your climate. However, if they do thin out near the ground as they mature, you can combine them with a row of low growing, spreading evergreen shrubs to fill in the bare spots.
Red and white cedars, hemlocks, junipers and spruce all have different varieties and cultivars in various heights, widths and growth habits and could be arranged to fit into the smaller landscape and provide the shelter needed by wildlife.
Large evergreen shrubs can be used closer to the home for winter protection and to direct cooling breezes in summer. They serve to reduce wind velocities and redirect the air flow. This is more practical for small areas and subdivision lots where space does not allow the use of conventional windbreaks. They should be planted close enough to form a solid wall and far enough away from the house (about 4 to 5 feet minimum) to create a dead air space. This relatively still air has much more insulating power than moving air, and can help reduce the loss of heat through the walls.
Large shrubs used as foundation plantings also protect the home from winter winds and summer heat.
Nesting boxes, feeders and watering sites can be added to these plants to improve the habitat for wildlife.
Plants can help reduce energy consumption year round. Vines, shrubs and certain trees can be used as espaliers (plants trained to grow flat against walls) provides foliage cover that insulates your home’s walls against summer heat and winter winds. And, once again, careful selection of plants that have berries and protective branches can provide food and habitat for wildlife and create diversity. Plants that flower and bear fruit at different times of the year are particularly beneficial. Some shrubs that produce berries can provide food throughout the year. Trees bearing nuts and fruit can also be used.
A windbreak takes time to establish for it to be effective. For immediate relief from the effects of wind, construct a fence with an open weave pattern (e.g., basket weave). This creates a larger, protected downwind area than a solid fence. Windbreaks should allow some wind penetration. Those composed of living plants naturally allow some of the wind to come through, which makes them more efficient. Impenetrable windbreaks such as solid fences create a partial vacuum on the protected side, reducing their effectiveness.
If there’s one thing I really love about Arkansas, it’s got to be the sense of community. People know each other by name here; know about their families and lives and what they like to get up to on the weekend. Recently, there’s been a lot of development of that community-vibe in our food system. I’ve been thinking about local food sources and the community it creates, and so I went out and spoke with a few people from restaurants or markets that source local ingredients.
We throw that term “local” around loosely, but what does it really mean?
“Food you love from people you know- that’s really what it’s about. It’s more than getting yourself full, it’s a connection,” said Stephanie Hamling, a jack-of-all-trades at North Little Rock’s Argenta Market.
The Argenta Market is a grocery and deli in the downtown community of Argenta that draws clientele and goods, from the adjacent Saturday farmer’s market. Hamling said there’s a good “synergy” between the two – Argenta Market offers the farmers free coffee, and when the farmer’s market ends they’ll come in to see what we need for the upcoming week in produce, jams, cheese, and sauces.
“We have over 100 local vendors, and they make this a destination spot,” Hamling said. She works on the website, manages customer service, and sources local products, but while she was originally a graphic artist, it’s the relationship with the customers that is her real concern. She said that she knows 75% of the people who walk through the front door, and while I was having lunch from the deli I saw her walk up to a man and hand him a gift certificate because she “appreciates him always coming to visit them.”
That’s what I’m talking about when I talk about community. But there’s more to it than that.
Loblolly Creamery is soda fountain a few blocks from our office. The digital team takes a walk over there at least once a week – it’s their “spot”, so to speak. For Sally Mengel, co-owner of the artisan ice cream shop, a local business is one that supports its community.
“We do that by buying all local ingredients and making everything from scratch,” the artisan ice cream maker said.
While we talked about their small-batch ice creams and traditional Arkansas ingredients, Sally said hi to a few customers by name, and knew what a couple of them were going to order.
“It makes it more enjoyable – you know who you’re serving, you get to know people. We’re creating this dialogue- we’re not a traditional soda fountain, sometimes we don’t even have vanilla. We’re kind of opening people’s perceptions and palettes… All with local ingredients.”
I like to buy Arkansas ingredients for a lot of reasons – I’m from Arkansas, want to support my fellow farmers and have those dollars flowing back into my state’s economy. Like Jack Sundell, from The Root Café©, said, “whether its food or a hammer from a hardware store, if you seek out local suppliers you’re supporting all that local business, a place that has its own personality, and your community on the whole.”
But Brandon Brown, owner of Hillcrest Artisan Meats (“H.A.M.”), noted that “local” is kind of a trendy topic, and one that doesn’t always work for a business model.
“There’s a big difference between local food and good local food,” he said. “I think that people fall into a trap of â€˜just because it’s local it’s great.’ There’s a lot of local stuff that’s not great.”
While we sat in the in the charcuterie, rich aromas hanging in the air, Brown pointed out the pictures adorning the wall – pictures from the farms where they source their meat, both in Arkansas and around it. He and his wife moved to Arkansas from Oregon, and saw an immediate need for a free-range, grass-fed meat source and started to befriend farmers, some of whom are in those photos.
“We were really disappointed in the food that’s available in Little Rock – so we opened this place out of selfishness and necessity!” he said with a laugh.
And that’s why he, and others, see the local food movement as an opportunity to educate.
“People expect to come here and have every vegetable or egg to be local. I try to explain that we don’t have local milk because our last local dairy closed a few years ago or that you just can’t grow avocados in Arkansas, so we have to source them from somewhere else,” Hamling said about Argenta Market. “I think we’re educators more than anything else.”
Part of that education means explaining that the price of high-quality, locally grown food is worth the extra cash.
Brown told a story of a first time customer coming in to pick up a whole chicken. When Brown rang his total up- about $20 for just the bird- the man was appalled by the price, but bought it anyway. By the next afternoon, the customer had posted to HAM’s Facebook page an essay about just how wonderful that chicken was and how he’d never buy another commercial chicken again.
“It’s really expensive to grow meat well, without hormones. What we buy it for reflects that, what we sell it for has to reflect that,” Hamling said.
Sundell says that there’s no comparison between these high-quality local foods and industrial products – people want good taste and good health.
“People are interesting in eating healthier. You’re eating local food closer to the time it was picked, so it just has more nutritional value than a tomato that was picked two weeks ago, shipped green, & sprayed with ethylene gas to ripen. It looks like a tomato, but it doesn’t taste like a tomato,” Sundell said. “Another big issue is transparency. You hear about food borne illnesses and outbreaks – that type of thing rarely happens when you’re dealing with a local food system because production isn’t so industrialized.”
And less industrialization means better tasting food.
“It doesn’t take a chef or a knowledgeable food critic to taste the difference between an Arkansas tomato and a store-bought tomato. There’s no comparison.” Sundell said.
When I go to the farmer’s market, I see a mixed bag of people both selling and shopping – young, old, first-time farmers, third-generation land owners. But eating local food isn’t a new idea.
“Before there was convenience food and all these packaged goods, people grew their own food and had to buy from farmers… But now it’s becoming more valued,” Mengel said.
Hamling echoed that sentiment.
“In generations past everybody was trying to get off the farm, but now I think people are looking for community and connection where they can get it, like going back to the land, and we want to support that.”
Like I said, I love the community aspect of my home state. We support our farmers, and there is a growing movement of people who want to make that more common. I think local food and the fellowship it creates is a powerful movement, but I couldn’t say it better than Jack Sundell does.
“I don’t see it as something that’s a passing fad. With local food, it’s something that builds community so naturally and it’s something that people really crave and haven’t had access to. When they come together over good food, I think they get something special that you can’t just find anywhere.”