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Growing gardens and healthy kids

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Celebrating Women’s Work with Plants in the Rogue Valley: Rebecca Slosberg
Photo courtesy of RVF2S Fifth-grade students from Orchard Hill Elementary School in Medford make farm-fresh vegetable soup during a field trip to Hanley Farm in Central Point.
Photo by Rhonda Nowak Rebecca Slosberg of Rogue Valley Farm to School helps out students at Phoenix Elementary plant seeds in raised beds in the school garden. The kids get weekly garden time through the Farm to School program.
Photo by Rhonda Nowak Rogue Valley Farm to School education director Rebecca Slosberg in the garden at Phoenix Elementary School. RVF2S works with all three schools in the Phoenix-Talent School District.

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories about women gardeners in the Rogue Valley.

“We can´t know what we haven´t been taught.”

— Barbara Kingsolver, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life,” 2007

Barbara Kingsolver tells a story about Malcolm, a kid who used to hang around her husband, Steven’s, vegetable garden. Steven lived in the city at the time, and his garden was something of a neighborhood curiosity, particularly for Malcolm who “had a love-hate thing with the idea of vegetables touching the dirt.”

One day, Steven pulled a carrot out of the earth and showed it to Malcolm and his friends. He told the boys that carrots are roots, and he asked them if they could think of other foods that might be root vegetables.

Kingsolver writes, “Malcolm checked with his pals, using a lifeline before confidently submitting his final answer: ‘Spaghetti?’”

We can’t know what we haven’t been taught.

It was 15 years ago that Kingsolver wrote “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” a chronicle of her family’s one-year experiment with eating only locally produced food. Nowadays, my guess is there are many school-aged children in urban and suburban communities who could answer Steven’s question correctly, and one reason is because of programs like Farm to School.

The F2S movement started in the late 1990s as a grassroots program in California when a handful of parents and educators decided to do something about the rising levels of processed food served in school cafeterias and the rising levels of obesity among school-aged children.

Twenty-five years later, the USDA Farm to School Census reported that more than 42% of the nation’s schools — 23.6 million students — have participated in F2S programs. In addition, the USDA estimated that $789 million has been spent through the F2S initiative on procuring locally produced food from farmers.

Farm to School programs have been growing in Oregon. According to the 2019 USDA F2S Census, there are 958 participating schools in our state, with more than 431,000 students served. Eighty-nine percent of the participating schools serve locally produced food, 67% provide food and nutrition education, and 45% of the schools have edible gardens that also serve as outdoor classrooms.

We are fortunate to have Farm to School programs in the Rogue Valley. RVF2S is a woman-led organization with the mission of educating kids about our food system through hands-on farm and garden activities. I recently met up with education director Rebecca Slosberg in the garden at Phoenix Elementary, one of eight participating schools in the Phoenix-Talent and Central Point school districts.

The kids were learning how to plant seeds and measure distance between rows in some of the raised garden beds. Leading the group was RVF2S educator Alicia Loebl, assisted by intern Luke Thomason. Alicia provides weekly garden time for each class at Phoenix Elementary, and works with teachers to help them incorporate gardening into the curriculum.

“We’ve learned that it’s really beneficial for teachers to be out in the garden with their students,” Rebecca said. “With the [RVF2S] garden educator in the lead, the classroom teachers have an opportunity to interact with their students in a more informal way.”

Rebecca pointed out that garden time provides social and emotional, as well as academic, benefits. “A garden is such a calm, nurturing place to be. It’s empowering for students to learn how to grow their own food and to have something they feel responsible for. Students learn how to work together to accomplish gardening tasks.”

The children also get to eat the food they grow. Each month, students harvest their crops and the garden educator sets up a tasting table so students can vote on their favorites. “Kids will say they don’t like vegetables, but it’s different when they help pick them fresh from the garden,” Rebecca said.

Certainly it helps that RVF2S harvest educator Deanna Waters-Senf is a creative chef and a whiz at preparing fresh vegetables in new ways for students to try.

The Farm to Cafeteria program is a collaboration between RVF2S and local farmers to provide fresh, locally produced food in school cafeteria meals. Not only does the program support kids in developing healthful eating habits, it also supports local food growers and businesses.

During the 10 years Rebecca has worked with RVF2S, she’s seen the Farm to Cafeteria program grow significantly, but she admits it’s still an “uphill battle to make changes in school food.”

I asked Rebecca how she came to be involved with RVF2S. “The outdoors was always my happy place,” she said, which led to an interest in taking natural science classes as an undergraduate at Humboldt State University, where she earned a degree in anthropology. She worked with the National Park Service as a ranger leading interpretive hikes and nature programs, and then as an educator at an outdoor science-based school in San Luis Obispo, California.

Rebecca moved to the Rogue Valley to complete her master’s degree in environmental education at Southern Oregon University. For her thesis, she conducted a survey to learn more about environmental education programs in our area, and that’s when she became involved with RVF2S.

One day she brought a group of high school-aged boys in foster care to Eagle Mill Farm in Ashland so they could harvest vegetables and cook a meal with them. “Seeing how much the boys enjoyed it, watching them pick the food, make it and eat it, had a huge impact on me,” Rebecca recalled. “I knew then that doing this kind of work is where I wanted to head.”

A decade later, Rebecca still loves her work, which has transitioned from school-based educator to manager and director roles. “It’s been a great journey,” Rebecca said. “Anytime I get down, I go into a garden and see the kids. It’s such a worthwhile thing to be able to bring to the students.”

Find out more about the Rogue Valley Farm to School programs at www.rvfarm2school.org. Check out more of my conversation with Rebecca on the January episode of my podcast “Celebrating Women’s Work with Plants in the Rogue Valley” at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.

Rebecca’s favorite plant

“The vine maple (Acer circinatum) is one of my favorite plants. It’s Oregon’s native version of the Japanese maple. Vine maples’ bright green color is amazingly beautiful. It’s a riparian plant that grows near streams, so it provides benefits to the ecosystem. It’s hardy and adaptable. Sometimes we start off our garden educator meetings by asking everyone what plant they’re feeling like that day. When I’m feeling good, I say I’m feeling like a vine maple.”

Inspiring garden literature

“I love to read Barbara Kingsolver’s books. I enjoy how she weaves her science background into the stories, and her way of thinking about plants and the natural world really resonates with me. I’ve also been inspired by Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book “Braiding Sweetgrass.” Her background as a botanist and an Indigenous person, and her way of thinking about the connection between humans and plants, is really inspiring to me.”

Inspiring women

“As everyone knows, these past two years have been extremely challenging, but one of the silver linings for me has been participating in a lot of online workshops and classes where I’ve been able to meet colleagues in the F2S world from all over the country. It’s been the most inspiring thing to me to interact with all of these amazing women who are so creative and passionate about bringing gardens and gardening experiences to students.”

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com.