I started my year of FoodCorps service this past September: Guns Blazing. I am a determined individual plagued by prescription-strength, rose-colored glasses, so I started work in September predicting that I would change the world by the end of the school year. My plan was to bring the gospel of real food to the students of Oelwein so they could grow up to live healthfully ever after. Then, about three weeks into my work, I had a long and serious meeting with reality. This work is a constant waltz of down, up, up…down, up, up (think one step back for every two steps forward). For every fruit or vegetable I get the 3rd graders on board with trying, there are birthday and holiday treats, sugary ‘juice’, and the fast food from their favorite drive-thru to compete with, and let me tell you that it is not a competition. When offered asparagus or a cheeseburger, the 3rd grader will pick the cheeseburger with almost complete certainty. Still, I’m a Taurus. Regardless of your level of belief in the relationship between cosmic phenomenon and one’s personality, I am a bull through and through, strong-willed with endless determination. Standing face to face with the prospect of limitless cheeseburgers, I simply rear my horns.
During my short eleven weeks of service thus far, there have been moments of defeat, moments where I felt quite un-bullish; however, for every set-back, there are more moments that fill my heart with an almost painful amount of joy and satisfaction and hope. My first nutrition class with the Knd-3rd graders (about 400 students) focused on “taking a brave first bite”. I spoke to the students about “teaching our tongues” to like the healthy flavors in fruits and vegetables. I commiserated with the kiddos explaining, “I had such a tough time liking tomatoes when I was in elementary school. I would pick a tomato fresh from the vine of my parent’s backyard garden. I would smell the tomato and its scent was delicious to me; but then I would then try the tomato and it was not my favorite.” Truly, I thought tomatoes were disgusting, yucky, [insert a seven year old making a rude, grossed-out face], but I told my students that “tomatoes were not my favorite” because in my nutrition classes rule number two is that we do not say ‘Yuck’ or make faces. Rule one is that we practice trying new foods politely and rule three is that we wait to eat until everyone is served. Moral of the yucky tomato story is that by the time I was twenty, I had tried tomatoes over and over again until one day my tongue LEARNED to love the flavor of those healthy, August heirlooms. I taught my tongue to like tomatoes!
At the end of each nutrition class, the students get to try a fruit or vegetable that we learned about in that lesson. October’s super, special, mystery, vegetable was jicama. Now, if you are sitting there thinking, “Uh, what is jicama?” That is a standard reaction. Jicama can be found in the produce section of your grocery store, most likely next to the potatoes. Like potatoes, jicama grows underground. I think it tastes kind of like a raw potato but also kind of like an apple, crunch and juicy. Once I had passed the jicama slices out to each student in the class, I would count down, “3…2…1!”, and with that we would take one brave bite. I think 390 of the 400 students actually took the brave first bite and many of those gave a polite thumbs up to let their class know that they liked the jicama.
I had one of those warm fuzzy moments every time the students took a brave bite and gave me the thumbs up, but more notable than those warm fuzzies was the fill my heart with an almost painful amount of joy and satisfaction and hope moments I experienced when I heard that the local grocery store sold out of jicama. They rarely move a half case of these strange, underground vegetables, but after my lessons they sold three cases and had customers asking for more. I cried. I cried over jicama.
Because the grocery store was sold out and would not be getting another shipment until the next month, I ordered some pre-cut jicama sticks through my foodservice director to pass out during lunch at the elementary schools. I arrived at the first grade lunch hour with my jicama sticks in tow. All 100 first graders were noisily eating their sloppy joes with sweet potato fries. For a brief moment, I doubted the power of those jicama sticks. I thought the kids would not want a semi-slimy, white stick of vegetable when they had crispy fries on their tray. I quietly walked over to the table nearest the door and asked students to raise their hand if they would like some jicama. Tiny little hands from bodies with tiny smiles of excitement shot into the air. I heard a few kids yell, “Miss Molly! Miss Molly, I want some jicama” from the table next to me. Before I could make it to the third of ten tables in the lunchroom, it started as a faint, slow whisper, “Jicama! Jicama! Jicama! Jicama!” 100 first grade students were cheering for vegetables. I had incited a small, vegetable anarchy in the lunchroom!
As I write this, I am crying. I am crying over jicama for the second time in under a month. Robert Louis Stevenson has this wonderfully sappy quote stating, “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.” These days, I would classify myself as more of a realistic optimist. I understand that my year of service with FoodCorps is not going to change the world; however, I firmly believe that I am moving in the right direction. I may not be changing the world, but I am certainly planting the seeds of health and hope in kids that are going to grow up and change the world, one small vegetable riot at a time.