Celebrate Community: Seeds of change

FoodCorps aims to educate youngsters on local, whole foods
2013-03-10T22:30:00Z 2013-03-11T06:17:07Z Celebrate Community: Seeds of changeBy ZACH BENOIT zbenoit@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

A half-dozen preteen boys sat around the table in a small room at the Billings Salvation Army building, barely able to keep their adolescent energy bottled up amidst outbursts of chatter.

Laid out in front of them were white sheets of paper covered in seeds they would plant a week later. The kids' job was to identify the seeds using photos of the vegetables they'll grow into.

Madyson Versteeg's job is to make sure those lessons, and the others she's been teaching in Billings for more than six months, stick with the kids.

"Today, we're going to be scientists," she told the boys. "We're going to be very scientific about this."

And scientific they were, eventually naming each of the seeds and going over what they'd grow into before learning about the starting and planting process.

Versteeg, a recent University of Montana graduate, is a member of the Montana FoodCorps, the state branch of a national organization that aims to connect kids with healthy food by sending service workers directly into communities. She's been stationed in Billings since last summer, helping to teach kids about healthy food and proper food growth and while helping them tend to a handful of local gardens supporting those efforts.

"It's a nationwide team of leaders that tries to get kids to eat healthy and reconnect them with real food," she said.

While the nationwide FoodCorps came into existence in 2009, it started in Montana in 2006 and helped serve as a model for the national program. The Montana FoodCorps has 10 sites, including Billings, across the state manned by service workers on 11-month-long assignments.

Sponsored by AmeriCorps and run in Montana by the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), those workers work to lay a foundation of healthy eating for kids by working with schools, educating kids and providing them with engaging, hands-on experience like working in community gardens.

"A day in the life of a FoodCorps member really differs depending on where you're serving," said Crissie McMullan, founder of the Montana FoodCorps and an NCAT project manager. "The common thing is that all of them are working in some way to build a healthy, community-based food system."

Each of the 10 cities across the state with FoodCorps services feature different programs based on the needs and resources in the community. Some might put a focus on working through the public schools while others might work more with local farmers or tend and promote community gardens.

The Billings-based member -- Versteeg, until August -- works through the Salvation Army, 2100 Sixth Ave. N., mostly with its Middle Ground program, which provides local kids with art, music, textile arts and sustainable farming education.

She runs a weekly class for kids with a Salvation Army employee. They cover a wide range of topics, from healthy eating to gardening tips. They also get to work in a hydroponic garden run by the Salvation Army and in an outdoor community garden when the weather cooperates.

They will start to plant later this month.

"The kids already know that fresh food's way better for them," Versteeg said. "With the knowledge they've gained here, their automatic response to what is good food, what is whole food, is there now."

Versteeg has also worked some with local schools, including a semester with a high school earth science class focusing on agriculture-based products and advising a rural school on building and maintaining a school garden.

McMullan said the program is taking applications through its website for the next group of service workers through March 24 for 80 positions nationwide.

Last year more than 1,000 people applied for the positions, which serve from September until August each year. McMullan said local applicants who want to serve in Montana often have a leg up because they're already familiar with the area.

"We're looking for people who have a varied skill set and are good at working with kids, farmers and teachers," she said. "Really, we want people who are dedicated and passionate about growing a healthy future."

Versteeg hopes to pursue a career in farming and education and said the FoodCorps helped shape that idea while instilling healthy habits in kids.

"That's something that I see myself doing, hopefully, for the rest of my life," she said. "It's a great opportunity for a service member to go out in a community and do something really, really meaningful. To see the impact it can have is really wonderful."

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