Here in Poplar High School, most of the kids have never seen fresh ginger root, or if they have, they don’t know what it is. They are also not used to having access to many fruits and vegetables every day. The school offers the daily required amount of both, but usually in the form of canned mixed fruit and a salad bar, occasionally with a whole banana or apple at breakfast.
There are two small grocery stores in town, both with a small produce selection. In a food desert, the supply and demand centered around produce is complex. Often when fresh produce arrives in the grocery store, it is not at a stage of peak freshness. It could even spoil early because it was picked or gathered too early, before the plant had time to grow all of the vitamins and minerals and protective qualities within itself at ripening point. Due to this, as well as cost associated with access and other social and educational factors, the demand for produce in the community is not high. When people are accustomed to eating non-perishable food, it’s what they stick with. If you don’t know how to cook something, why bother buying it, especially when junk food loaded with sugar and salt tastes better to your current taste preferences?
If any of this is to change, it will be through food education and cooking education, as well as a new system of ordering with local grocers in order to be able to provide enough fresh produce for every community member. Where do we start to combat these problems? The answer is always education, and it always begins with the youth.
This month, Poplar High is starting a juice bar offered at breakfast time three days a week. We are using the existing concession area in the foyer by the gym, and the student council will be running the bar. Back in December, when the local organization Health Promotion Disease Prevention (HPDP) helped serve a meal at the Holiday Art Night at the high school, the topic of a future juice bar came up with a few kids from student council. HPDP wanted to donate a juicer for the high school to use, but we needed a student team to manage the juice bar. Without direct prompting from myself or HPDP employees, these few student council members very excitedly volunteered to run the juice bar. They decided, in that moment, to call themselves The Juice Boys. A dream was born. With their raw excitement passed on to student council, and with support of the teacher who manages student council, this dream could never die.
A few days before program roll-out, I was finishing up training the volunteer students with Martin, the nutritionist from HPDP. It was three months later, and the student excitement was still pretty high.
Devon*, Student Council President, seemed surprised when he received his informational training packet. “Oh, we have a schedule?! But what if we want to work every day?!”
I smiled. “You are more than welcome to work extra days, and I think that’s awesome.”
Another student, Isaac*, spoke up. “What if we make a logo like the one from That 70’s Show, and we get headbands with the logo too?!"
“I’ll see what we can do with that, barring copyright infringement. Also, just FYI, it doesn’t look like the aprons with the phrase Let’s Juice are going to be ready by Monday when we start.”
Devon chuckles. “Oh, wow…that’s fine, we weren’t expecting them for like at least three weeks from now.”
Devon has a unique student perspective on the struggles the school faces in implementing new programs.
“This is the best thing I’ve done in all of my high school career,” says Devon, after we showed the students how to use the juicer and taught them about certain produce like ginger, beets and cucumbers.
I had mixed feelings about this comment. “Aw, really? I’m certainly glad you’re enjoying this training, but there should be so much more to enjoy about high school.”
“I mean it, this was really fun and I learned so much more than I have in some classes.”
I wanted to cry, again, for mixed reasons. I wanted to cry because these students felt as if they had not learned everything they should in high school. I wanted to cry because these students saw ginger root for the first time and learned how to use it. I wanted to cry because they ate raw beets and thought they were delicious. I wanted to cry because they learned that they only needed to peel cucumbers when they were not organic. I wanted to cry because they were so excited to walk around the school with sample cups, trying to convince teachers that spinach-based juices and beet-centered juices were in fact really delicious. I wanted to cry because I saw them learning and I felt them learning. Learning isn’t about memorization and standardized test scores. It’s about learning by doing, it’s about being involved, and these kids are all in.
*Names have been changed
Montana No Kid Hungry-PRC AmeriCorps VISTA