Ashley Turk

About Ashley Turk

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

A Goodbye to Northeast Iowa

Thank you note 1This is my final blog post. Just writing that sentence is surreal! I moved to Northeast Iowa in August 2013 to serve with Food and Fitness and I am now moving, a short two years later. In preparing for my upcoming transition, I have been cleaning out my apartment and office. In doing so, I found a stack of beautiful, bright thank you notes from a Head Start classroom from my first year of service. The notes almost brought me to tears and are a great walk down memory lane. The notes are full of drawings, the messages are translated by adult hands. They range from funny, “Thank you for the stickers,” to downright heart warming, “Thank you for teaching us about different foods. We like healthy food to eat.”



In reflecting on my two years with FoodCorps and Food and Fitness, I am overwhelmed by gratitude. Hands down, my favorite part of service is the relationships I built. The staff in my schools, students, supervisors, and co-workers all left a lasting impression on the course of my life. Along the way, I learned so many valuable lessons. Some of the lessons were funny, some were difficult to swallow. It’s hard to boil down two amazing years of service into a few bullet points, but I’ll share my favorite nuggets of wisdom from teaching kids about real food to help them grow up healthy.


– Never underestimate the power of a smoothie to get kids to eat greens. My “biggest hit” recipes all involved kale or spinach, blended into a delicious drink.

– Students will almost always eat or try a food they made or grew! Out in the garden, kids begged to try fresh kale. Back in the kitchen, students wolfed down guacamole or veggies they cut by hand.

– When in doubt, serve fruit kabobs!

– Never be afraid to ask for help or advice. It builds a coalition of supporters who are more willing to help with future projects.

– Northeast Iowa is full of wonderful people and children I will dearly miss!


So here’s to a fabulous two years of service. To everyone I met along the way, thank you from the bottom of my heart. You helped make my time in Iowa amazing!


Garden Artists

I’ve known for quite some time that I needed to write a blog post to capture the summer school program for 6,7,8 and 9th graders in my district. It’s been amazing and the highlight of my service this year. The only problem? A lack of time! Summer may be known for its long, lazy days, but this month has flown by (much to my surprise). Luckily, I got a chance to slow down and spend quality time with students outside, making me savor the season and all its glories.SS Garden 2



While I may get sick of weeding, watering, and harvesting, the 40 students in the summer school program didn’t tire of anything. Over the course of four weeks, students eagerly rushed out to our garden, excited to see what had grown. We painted our raised beds with designs drawn by students. SS Garden 1We turned pallets into bright signs for our garden. We put a walkway in the courtyard. Students were confusingly pleased to shovel rocks into wheelbarrows and dump them into the pathway.


Despite the effort, I didn’t do it all alone. Thanks to our ag teacher Jessica O’Connor, we planted potatoes, ran soil tests, and learned a bit about identifying weeds. We pruned tomatoes (hint: students love cutting off their “armpit hairs”). On rainy days, we turned into artists, crafting sundials out of clay. SS Garden 5


The month was a ton of planning for me, yet immensely rewarding. Students seemed pleased to garden and see their creations come to life. To celebrate our successful season, we popped popcorn and made kale chips out of our ample harvest. My favorite part of the cooking madness? Students asking for seconds on kale chips, then asking to take fresh kale home. And asking for the recipe so they could make the snack with their families. I will forever remember their wonderful smiling faces, carrying home bags of fresh kale to cook themselves. It has been a wonderful summer so far.

SS Garden 7


It Takes A Village

The smell of the grill wafted slowly down the hallways. Curious students and staff stuck their head out of classrooms, eager for lunch to arrive. “Oh my gosh,” one student exclaimed, “It smells SO GOOD!” “I’m STARVING!” I understood their feelings. It was just before eleven, and the smell of the cooking burgers was delicious, distracting, and too good to be ignored. What was the occasion for the barbecue? May is beef month. To celebrate, Waukon High School and Jr. High students ate local beef grilled by Allamakee Cattlemen and food service staff on May 7th. Cattleman Grill 5


While the afternoon went quickly, burgers easily devoured, the event took much planning and coordination. It takes a village, as they say, to bring the beef to students’ lunch trays. Teresa Wiermerslage of ISU Extension made the event possible. Thanks to her leg work, grant funding given to the Iowa Food Hub from USDA Farm to School and Allamakee County Community Foundation covered the cost of processing. Food Service Director Julie Magner was willing to buy the beef and have her staff prep it. The Allamakee Cattleman’s Association agreed to help grill and serve the burgers. Two beef princesses form the county helped count and serve burger patties during lunch (and one is a current student at the high school)! Without all of these core partners, the local beef would not have been possible. It’s not everyday students enjoy local beef from a cow raised in Allamakee County then processed at Quillin’s in town. That money from the sale and processing stays within the county, helping fund local businesses and people. While students were enjoying a tasty lunch, they had little idea the impact their meal has on their school district. Cattleman Grill 8


Students had no beef with the beef on their trays. I asked a few students what they thought of their burgers. “It’s really good.” “I wish we could have grilled burgers everyday.” To be honest, most did not answer, their mouths were too full of food. The real test of the lunch came when students went to throw away their trays. Nearly all were completely empty. I’d say, we had many satisfied customers. Cattleman Grill 2


I’m proud to serve in a district that takes the time to honor local food and support local agriculture. Schools can be a model for what a sustainable food system could look like. For that change to happen, it will take a village. And maybe one very large grill.

Cattleman Grill 1


A Sweet Farewell

This past week I have been celebrating the last cooking clubs of the year! It’s amazing how fast time has flown by since the start of the school year. Reflecting on this past year of after-school programming, some numbers ran through my head. I have taught over 150 students in cooking clubs, making over 20 different recipes. All total, I have spent over 70 hours with these students. Over 200 copies of recipes were printed and sent home to families.


Numbers, however, don’t capture the whole story. It’s been amazing to watch their curiosity grow. I have seen reluctant students turn into adventurous tasters. I have witnessed older students take ownership and help plan future recipes. I have seen kids remind me how we start each club, going through the ritual of hand washing and playing our name game. Most importantly, I have been humbled by the power of food to bring students together. As soon as I walk in the door, I am greeted by a chorus of questions. “ASHLEY!” “WHAT ARE WE MAKING TODAY?” “My friend wants to do cooking club, can he join?” “Hey, when are we making my recipe?”



At times, the clubs have been overwhelming. When you put ten little, excited bodies in a room with multiple step recipes, chaos often follows. Despite the mess, students always enjoy the end product. They love being able to make their own food and then share with their peers, parents, and staff (we often give out samples).



To celebrate the end of our cooking clubs at East Elementary, we choose the recipe that receives the most requests: fruit pizza! The ten students made a whole-wheat honey crust, whipped up their own frosting, prepped the fruit, and crumbled graham crackers on top. The result, while crumbly, was delicious! Cooking Club Fruit Pizza 3As I watched the students prep the strawberries (a crowd favorite), wash berries, and mix the crust, I felt reflective and sad. I will miss this next year. I will miss the chaos, the chorus of hellos from excited students, and I will miss the happy faces smeared with the fruits of their labor. Most importantly, I will miss the relationships I have been able to build with students and staff. While I won’t be teaching these classes next year, the memories I made along the way will stay with me. That is a sweet ending to a great year.

Seeing is Believing

As a resource contact, I happily teach children of all ages about the benefits of local food. Through song, taste tests, lessons, and gardening, I hope to instill an appreciation for fresh, local foods that help our environment, our communities, and our farmers. Rarely, however, do I get to take students out of school to witness local food in action – until this week! High school ag teacher Jessica O’Connor wanted to take students on a field trip to a production greenhouse. A perfect destination was found: Rolling Hills in West Union, owned by Eric & Fern Unruh. After Rolling Hills, we decided to tour the Iowa Food Hub, where we get many of the local foods for our school lunch program. We would finish at Unionland Market, just down the street from the Food Hub. It’s a great retail store that sells many local products, from baked goods to dairy. Students would be able to see different parts of our local food system, from producer to distributor to retailer.


We set off for Rolling Hills this past Tuesday. I had no idea what to expect and neither did our students! We were greeted warmly by Fern, who sent students on a “scavenger” hunt of the greenhouse, discovering the methods Rolling Hills uses to water, heat, and run air through the space. Students had a blast poking around the gorgeous scenery! Rolling Hills Tour 4Then, it was snack time. Fern gave out samples of their lettuce mix. I have never seen students so eager to eat their greens. Many students did not even use ranch! It’s no small surprise, Fern and her family’s greens are delicious, not one bitter leaf!

Rolling Hills Tour 3


After our tasty Rolling Hills experience, we headed to West Union to tour the Iowa Food Hub. Nick Mabe and Georgia Windhorst talked to students about the Food Hub, its mission, and its impact on our local food economy. Then, students were able to step into the cooler and freezer. A chilly but fun time!


Lastly, students headed to Unionland Market. After learning about the huge array of local products, students were allowed to purchase snacks to take home. Since one was shared with me, I can say the Amish baked goods were delicious!



Food Hub Tour

Jessica O’Connor was delighted with the trip, she felt her students “got a lot out of the experience”. Besides a snack, students got to see a unique side of their local food system. Next time students see a Rolling Hills box of lettuce they will be more likely to buy it, because they know its local and know who grows it. How many high schoolers can say the same about their salad? Having a conversation with students about the benefits of local food is important. Showing those students how local food is grown, who grows it, and where it’s sold can have far greater impacts than any classroom lesson. And giving out samples doesn’t hurt either.

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.