Ashley Turk

About Ashley Turk

I am a FoodCorps volunteer serving with Luther College in partnership with the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative.

Apple Creatures

I don’t have Facebook, I don’t Tweet, nor do I Instagram. I do, however, follow several food and lifestlye blogs. I enjoy the sites for their beautiful photos and simple meal plans, and I’m always amazed at the bloggers’ seemingly limitless ideas for content! Unlike the bloggers I admire, I often have a hard time finding inspiration. Looking for the perfect lesson intro or recipe, it seems like I spend hours on the internet or asking trusted colleagues. Sometimes, the answer can be as simple as listening to a wise suggestion from a student!


In the fall, when I started cooking after-school at Waterville Elementary on Fridays, one ambitious student (let’s call him D) asked EVERY WEEK if we could make his recipe – “apple people”. It required apples, peanut butter, pretzels, and various fruits or veggies. The apple acted as a body while the pretzels were the limbs. The peanut butter glued everything together while other produce could be used for decorations (think shredded carrots for hair, raisins for eyes).

I don’t know why it took me so long so listen to D, but I’m glad I did! Students worked hard on their “apple creatures” (we made more animals than people). Apple Creatures 4


Each was delighted in his or her own creativity and enjoyed the messy snack. In the end, the natural peanut butter was much too watery, but students were not bothered in the least. All it took was apples, raisins, peanut butter, and pretzels for students to unleash their inner artist. And you could eat your masterpiece, which is always a win in my book! When I asked D if he enjoyed his snack, he said “Yes, because it was my idea.”



Clearly, I need to work on creating more situations where student choice has real consequences. What better real life learning can there be? For the rest of the year, I will ask students for their input and ideas. It may not always lead to a usable answer, but the responses so far have been hilarious. At West elementary, students suggested we make: a buffet, shrimp, “healthy” cookies, raspberry smoothies, gravy, and chicken. We’ll see what else we can cook up!



Going Ga-ga

Waterville Games 2Ga-ga. I’m not sure about you, but when I hear that word, I think of a famous pop singer or something a toddler would say as he learns to talk. Ga-ga, as I recently learned, is also a game that students love.


Students stand inside a circle of connected wooden boards, hitting a ball while trying to dodge out of the way. If the ball hits you, you have to leave the arena and you are “out”. The last person left wins. According to Wikipedia, ga-ga means “touch touch” in Hebrew and is also known as Israeli dodgeball, Octo-Ball and Panda Bal. Whatever you call it, I cannot tell you how much students LOVED this game! They played for nearly an hour. Kids were sweaty, out of breath, and laughing the entire time!


Ga-ga was one of my favorite activities during our early out on February 25th. I was asked to come to Waterville Elementary to host a fitness afternoon. I had over thirty energetic students greet me as I walked in the door! Luckily, I was not alone. I had plenty of after-school staff and jr high and high school students to help! It was magical to watch the older students mentor the younger kids. It’s not everyday that high schoolers play kickball or basketball with kindergartners.

Waterville games 3 And it’s not everyday I play dodgeball with jr high students. As it turns out, that is a great thing! I was nailed a few times by the ball. And it HURT. Thank goodness I managed not to cry in front of students. I learned many wonderful lessons that day: kids love to be active if it involves a game, dodgeballs can really sting, and multiple ages working together is a beautiful thing.

Host with the Most

Before holding a large school event, I always feel a little nervous. Like an anxious hostess, I want to make sure everyone has a great time! As some weather moved in earlier this week, I held my breath. On February 4th, we planned a field trip with the 21st Century After-school program. Jr high and high school students were going to visit The Pepperfield Project in Decorah. Founded by David Cavagnaro, the non-profit learning center and farm teaches the art and necessity of seed saving and sustainable eating. Since its inception, The Pepperfield Project has graciously donated seeds to our school gardens. I could think of no better way for students to connect with their food than visiting the source of the seeds they had planted.


We had eight students sign up! This was more than I had ever anticiapted. Would students find the trip interesting? Would the staff find it useful? Would the weather hold off so we could make it to the farm? Would our bus get stuck on the rural, windy back roads? As is often the case, all my worrying was for nothing! The students LOVED the afternoon we spent with David! They were treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of The Pepperfield Project. Pepperfield Project ChickensWe covered nearly every aspect of the production. Students saw the seed saving room, where over two hundred varieties of plants are saved! They saw the many storage areas, from the root cellar, canning room, to a room holding the large squash used for animal food.


Once upstairs, we were able to save seed from heritage varieties of corn and sample apple juice made from twelve different kinds of apples! Pepperfield Project Corn 2One of their favorite moments was seeing David’s impressive bug collection, with butterflies, giants grasshoppers, and beetles! I watched as students happily asked questions and snapped photos of the many wonders in the house. From sea turtle skulls to dwarf citrus plants, David’s place has it all! The students were attentive and curious, asking many questions along the way. David was a gracious host, clearly at ease and enjoying the good energy from students. He invited us back anytime! I would love to take David up on the offer. In spring or summer, we hope to visit The Pepperfield Project again, so students can witness the gardens in full swing. I know there are some goats and chickens who would be happy to see us! And dogs too.



Smooth Success

What snack is always a crowd pleaser with students and never fails to get rave reviews? Pizza? Nope! Cupcakes? Not quite! Ice cream? Getting closer! I’ll give you a hint. It involves electricity, a little imagination, and the ability to be a great taster. Stumped? I’ll tell you – swamp smoothies! Despite the interesting sounding name (compliments of a third grader) most students love Green Smoothies! In a cooking club rut (we don’t always have access to a kitchen – just a microwave and sink), I spent way too much time scouring the internet and bugging my fellow resource contacts for simple, low-cost, healthy, and delicious recipes. Then I thought to myself, what would I want to eat? What do I enjoy? Lately, even though it’s wintertime, I have been all about the greens whipped up in my blender.


The greatness of smoothies, in my opinion, is that you can almost never fail to go wrong. On occasion though, I have. Add too much plant powder or random assortment of veggies (mint, celery, and parsley in my case) and the result can be disastrous. It’s terrible when your smoothie taste like a cactus or field of grass. However, if you follow some simple guidelines, smoothies are a delicious treat or great breakfast on the go!


This is the green smoothie students whipped up:


-1 cup of liquid of choice (I went with soy milk)

-1 banana (frozen or fresh)

-2 handfuls of greens (spinach in our case)

-2 dates (for sweetness) (honey works well too)!

-4 ice cubes



Students at Waterville quickly realized the greatness and versatility of a smoothie. I even had some students ask if they could try the spinach raw – and they LOVED IT! Most were willing to try dates for the first time- to mixed reviews. After sampling our ingredients and blending, some students still had doubts about the bright green liquid!   Green Smoothie 2


To experiment, we added more ice for a thicker consistency. Then we decided to add another date to boost the flavor! All ten students loved the result! I asked for names for our recipe. Here are some of my favorite responses:

“Forest smoothie”

“Leaf smoothie”

“Nature in a glass”

“Frog smoothie”

Green Smoothie 4

We had a contest to see who could create the best green mustache. The competition was fierce! I now have a reason to look forward to Friday afternoons – cooking club at Waterville! Green Smoothie 5


Spice Up Your Life


I’ll tell you all something I have learned recently in my last year or so of service. The majority of food service staff I have had the pleasure to work with are fearless and open-minded trail blazers. They don’t balk at change or new federal lunch regulations. They solider on, adapting to new ways to serve up delicious, healthy meals for their students and staff. Did I mention they rarely complain and always seem to be smiling? Because Valentine’s Day is on the horizon, consider this my early love letter to the ladies who serve lunch in Allamakee Community Schools.



Since I have walked their hallways, I have asked my food service staff for thousands of favors and requests. Taste tests – sure! Can we highlight local foods on our menu -yes mam! Use my garden produce – you bet! Help me water the greenhouse over break – surely! Hang up my sign – always! Use your dishwasher – yes, but please don’t break it. They had fed me, laughed with me, listened to me, counseled me, and now they are helping me spice up students’ lives each and every day. Food Service Director Julie Magner introduced the idea of a “spice station”, an idea borrowed from a food service meeting. We are following in the foot steps of Decorah, who has a similar station at their high school.



Our spice station made its debut in the high school earlier this week. For something so simple, the newness has caused a quiet revolution (but we are only a few days in). The station is a cart that holds twelve different spices (such as black pepper, cumin, or garlic powder) that students can sprinkle on their lunch. How did we introduce the new concept? Day 1 – I stood behind the station, advertising via word of mouth. Day 2 – we moved the station to a more convenient location, I stood a few feet away. Day 3 – I hid and watched the station like a naturalist observing animals in the wild.


What did I see? I saw students (about 30 each lunch) using the spices! They asked me for recommendations. Students asked EACH OTHER for advice, friends helped friends sprinkle if hands were full. They thanked us for trying something new. Most importantly, students tried things! The lunch ladies and I watched in quiet amazement. It’s a rare moment seeing older students let down their guard. Watching students encourage each other to try something new made my day. Without the support of our food service staff, our spice station would not have been possible. Next on my agenda – grow our own spices to dry and put on the station! We have some parsley thriving in the greenhouse. And if I know my food service staff, they are game for trying anything I can throw at them.



Ready for the Challenge

Service work, like any position, has its unique highs and lows. Reading our blogs, you can see that we try to provide a realistic snapshot of what our days are like, with all the highs, lows, and in betweens. Finding tiny victories helps balance my perspective and weather the roller coaster.


I tried to keep this balance after our December Regional Youth Leadership Training. Heading back to Waukon, our three student representatives begged to go to McDonalds. I was flabbergasted. They spent the morning on a grocery store tour while learning tips for healthy shopping on a small budget. They had focused on active living and watched clips of documentaries laying out issues with the typical American diet. Had nothing sunk in? Was our messaging totally lost? I’m going to be honest, I gave in. I took the students to McDonalds, but tried to use it as a teachable moment. Disclaimer: I remember asking, “Is there anything you can get here that you can feel good about eating”? (A bad question, both grammatically and judgmentally.) So we sat down and talked about food while they ate their meals. We talked about who does the cooking in their homes, their thoughts on school lunch, and the nutrition of their burgers (since the label is on the carton). They were shocked I had not yet eaten at McDonalds in Decorah. That alone almost caused me to launch into a food-filled rant, but I hesitated. These are thoughtful, intelligent young adults. Instead of focusing on the negative, I’m choosing to see the positive. We had meaningful conversation. They listened attentively and answered my questions; each shared insights about their food choices. I’m walking away better informed and humbled, and they now see me as someone who occasionally takes people to fast food places. For better or worse, we shared time together. Despite this meal, I know change is being made. Actually, maybe because of this meal I know change is being made.


This week I taught seventh graders. We talked about the benefits of eating locally and seasonally, then worked in our greenhouse (those tomatoes don’t prune themselves). Greenhouse pruning 2At the end of the lesson, groups of students had to do a “table challenge”. The final question asked them to explain what local food means, in their own words. Most responses blew me away. “Local food means food that is grown near where you live and grown by people you know.” “Local food can come from your backyard.” “Local food is grown within a certain amount of miles.” The students had internalized some of the messaging, or at the very least demonstrated a small awareness of what I was trying to teach.



So, from a low point to a high point, I’m ready for winter break. I’m ready to reset my brain and plan exciting lessons for spring. Most of all, I’m ready to rest, so I can face the challenge of changing hearts and minds, one lesson, shared meal, or conversation at a time. See you in the new year!



Together, We Grow

Elated. Jazzed. Brimming. Ecstatic. Overjoyed. Grateful. Inspired. Peaceful. I use words like these to summon courage and set my mind at ease. Despite my personal mantras, some mornings it can be difficult to find the strength to get out of bed. Sometimes, the work at hand seems too daunting and I feel alone in my quest for comprehensive school health. I see the piles of soda bottles in the teacher’s lounge recycling and want to call it a day. I see the bounty of treats brought in packed lunches and beautiful fruits and vegetables thrown away in droves, untouched. I watch my cooking club students take huge portions of our snacks and toss the food with little appreciation for what is wasted.


Despite these moments, every so often the stars align and I have a day that is, for lack of a better word, amazing. November 20, 2014 was such a day. Thanks to Iowa’s Farm to School Coordinator Tammy Stotts, our 4-H Food and Fitness Youth Team, and the amazing food service staff in Allamakee, I have plenty to remind me of why I singed up for a second year of service. On that Thursday, Allamakee CSD was officially recognized as a “Farm to School Chapter” from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. This recognition comes with $500.00 in funding to support our garden projects and future grant opportunities to procure local foods. We will continue to grow vegetables for the junior high and high school salad bar and possibly expand our garden production to increase our yields. This exciting partnership allows our district to publicize its Farm to School program and tap into a network of resources across the state.


On top of our new status, high school members of our youth team requested to run a fitness event at Waterville Elementary this fall and I was amazed at their initiative! Thanks to the flexibility of the staff, Youth Coach Stef Perkins and I drove ten members to Waterville on the afternoon of November 20th for fitness activities involving the entire school! Waterville Fitness 1We played tug of war, dodgeball, duck duck goose and more! Kids were sweaty, out of breath, and having a blast. The high schoolers ran the event, managing the chaos well. The best part was the excitement on students’ faces, they begged us to come back! We will make the trip again, but we’ll do more pushups before we do. Myself and the youth team lost in tug of war to an elementary class. Sixth graders are much stronger than you would think.Waterville Fitness 4 It’s no wonder the students were ready for action – they had dined on a menu that featured local roasted turkey, baked apples, and green beans that morning. The turkey came from Ferndale Farms in Cannon Falls, Minnesota and was delivered thanks to the Iowa Food Hub. That’s right LOCAL, HUMANELY-RAISED TURKEY was served in a school lunch, alongside local baked apples! This is no small feat and took the coordination of many hands to get the birds from the farm and into students’ stomachs. The turkey was roasted and served in gravy.


Needless to say, it was delicious! Students and staff enjoyed the holiday meal. Local Turkey 2 I enjoyed the reminder to celebrate the changes I have witnessed in my year so far. We are serving local foods and we are getting kids active. Older students are mentoring younger children, setting a healthy example. Our district has supported sustainable farmers. We are connected to a network of schools across the state who prioritze local food. My new mantra this month (which should help my morning routine): TOGETHER we grow healthy kids. Sound familiar?

Greenhouse Blues

If you looked at my Google search history, you would think I am a very confused gardener. Recent searches include: “tomato plant pruning” and “recipes with fresh basil”. Who worries about gardening when the temperature outside drops below ten degrees? People who teach students in a greenhouse, that’s who!

Once a month, seventh grade science students visit the space, caring for the vegetables and learning about food production and personal health along the way. To date, our basil and parsley plants are flourishing! Our tomatoes, however, have yet to bear any fruit, and it’s too soon to tell if they will. One of the hardest parts of gardening, for me, is the uncertainty. Things often don’t turn out as planned, just like life! It’s a great study in patience. Basil Harvest

Sadly, uncooperative tomatoes are not the only issue plaguing the greenhouse. Attendance at my after school garden club has been dwindling. There are so many activities for junior high students to choose from after the last bell rings. From root beer brewing to automotive club, garden club had a nearly impossible time recruiting a steady stream of volunteers. Barb Winters-Kelly gave me the fabulous idea of using elementary school students when no middle-schoolers were available. The idea worked like a charm!  Three girls from East Elementary had a blast working in the greenhouse. They harvested basil, snipped parsley, pruned tomatoes, and watered. It was their first experience in the greenhouse, and they cannot wait to go back!

Homemade Ranch

I walked into my doctor’s office early in the morning, barely awake. The nurse behind the counter greeted me warmly. A pink sparkle on the desk caught my eye. I stared blankly, it took me a few seconds to recognize the pink energy beverage she was drinking. This is my least favorite part about being a FoodCorps service member – casually observing the eating habits of others. Whether in the grocery store or restaurant, I unconsciously take note of what others are eating.


My spying does serve some purpose; understanding the rationale behind people’s food choices increases my impact. It helps me reach more children and families with effective programming. In my year (and some change) so far, I have come across many legitimate reasons people do not consume fruits and vegetables daily. Working to overturn all of these reasons and make healthy food more accessible is my charge.


There are plenty of instances to hope. Last week, I transplanted vegetable starts with Mr. Ben Rausch’s seventh grade science classes. The district has a fabulous climate-controlled greenhouse complete with grow lights. Ms. Jessica O’Connor, high school ag teacher, started the vegetables for us: a variety of tomatoes, basil, and parsley! A few students were so excited to plant; they want to make tomato basil soup with our plants and grilled cheese sandwiches as a celebration (if they grow- fingers crossed)! In Head Start and Bright Beginnings, we made homemade ranch dressing to try with raw broccoli. Broccoli Lesson Pre-School 2The students loved making the dip themselves, and some claimed they liked the spread better than bottled ranch!


Working with students in these environments is a privilege. Through cooking and growing their own food, I have seen reluctant tasters turn into adventurous eaters. I want students to know food matters; what we put into our bodies has consequences for ourselves and the planet. Working to change the attitudes of children is never easy, but possible. It also doesn’t hurt that the homemade version of ranch is delicious and smells wonderful!


Want to try it for yourself?

Homemade Ranch Dressing

In a bowl, mix 1 tablespoon dried minced onions, 2 teaspoons dried parsley flakes, 1 ½ teaspoons salt, ¼ teaspoon pepper, ¼ teaspoons garlic powder, 1 cup sour cream, and 1 cup Greek yogurt. Combine all ingredients thoroughly and delicious vegetable dipping will be yours!

Broccoli Lesson Head Start

This is My Home

“This is my home.” As I listened to this song lyric this morning, I realized that it captures perfectly how I feel at the moment. As a returning FoodCorps service member with The Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative, I feel comfortable calling Iowa “home”. The people, students, staff, and community have been more than welcoming. Why do I love living in Decorah? It’s a place that clearly values health and wellness. It’s walkability score is off the charts; trails and outdoor adventure are never far away.


Lucky as I am in Decorah, I love discovering the treasures of other communities in our area! My service this year will focus on Waukon and Waterville, two towns within my school district. I cannot say enough good things about either of these places. There are local producers, farms, stores, organizations, churches, and a wellness center all leading exciting initiatives to better their towns. Not to mention, the staff and students of Allamakee have made my service immensely gratifying. Administration constantly supports my projects, teachers ask for lessons, and the food service staff is out of this world supportive and will go the extra mile to create wholesome meals.


I appreciated my good fortune serving in Allamakee when Mrs. Jill Roffman, Bright Beginnings Pre-K teacher, approached me about lessons this past summer. Jill wanted to begin “Farm to Pre-School” in her class, focusing on one local food item a month. To kick off the year, we toured the raised beds in the courtyard of the junior high/high school. Barely taller than our raised beds, students were dedicated to hunting for ripe cherry tomatoes and peppers. The looks on their faces reminded me of why I serve. Their excitement at harvesting vegetables demonstrates the need for all students to engage with the food they eat. It helps students make connections to their community and local agriculture; it helps them call a place home.



Pre-K Garden Tour