Ashley Turk

About Ashley Turk

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

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

Bittersweet Summer

It’s summertime, and the living sure is easy. Outside of classroom walls, I have been leading students in garden basics. It’s been enlightening watching curious minds make lifelong connections to the food they eat.

Oelwein Garden Worker Oelwein Garden Workers

One of my favorite garden experiences this season has been the Farmers Market trip with Wings Park’s summer school in Oelwein. Every Friday, we took a grade-level group to the market. Here, they were given coupons to purchase items. The produce and homemade bread was then turned into a delicious meal with the help of students. I cannot tell you how wonderful those mornings were. Each farmer was generous and patient, answering the many questions volleyed by the excited children. Students could hardly contain their joy as they ran from tent to tent, looking for the best deal.

Farmer's Market 2 Farmer's Market 7

From the plants to our plates, students could not wait to eat. Everything tasted fabulous! We enjoyed salads with radishes and our garden-grown basil dressing. The bread was delightful with butter we had made, flavored with oregano and rosemary the students grew. Our salad greens were mixed with our own kale, ripped out of the garden minutes before it was eaten.

Cooking with summer school 3 Cooking with summer school 2

Now that July is here, I am sad that summer school has ended. The garden now seems a bit smaller, a bit emptier. I also realize that ten fourth graders (or first graders for that matter) can accomplish a lot more than a single person. Watering is a lot more tedious now. As the summer lingers on, I am also saddened for the ending of my first service term. Next year will bring new changes, new adventures. It will, however, mean the end of my service in Oelwein. I have so enjoyed the community and the pillars of support FFI has in the district. I am grateful for my year and all that it has taught me, and cannot wait till next summer rolls around. I am sure the garden will be ready too. 

From the Ground Up

She concentrated on slowly pulling apart the root system, carefully separating each onion before planting in the bed. I stood back while trying to stay out of her way. This student’s effort confused me. A week before, she had been complaining about the heat while we worked to level the ground for our project. I could barely motivate her to lift a shovel. Less than a week later, this incoming eight grader was wrist deep in soil, asking for more work. I stood and watched in amazement. For me, this is a testament to the necessity of hands-on learning. Seeing your plans turn into a reality is a powerful experience. A school garden provides a space where that can happen.


Since June 3rd, 7th, 8th, and 9th grade students in Waukon have built a raised bed garden from the ground up. Raised BedsAg students shoveled out the grass. The rest was left to our students, who have spent their time measuring, cutting, and putting together the beds. Once those were in place, we spent two days filling the beds with over 120 wheelbarrows of compost. Mulch was spread around the nine raised beds to keep down weeds. Students mapped out space for our peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, basil, and onions before planting. If all goes according to plan, the produce will be used in school food once school begins in August. Should anyone need a garden crew, I know a couple of students who would be happy to help.

Garden Planners Mulch Spreaders



Take A Tour

“I don’t know.” For some adults, these three words are nearly impossible to say. Few people want to seem incompetent. We would rather pretend or give answers than admit we are clueless. As a service member, I have come to appreciate the power of not knowing as an avenue for growth. One of my greatest learning experiences this year was a Head Start parents’ grocery store tour in Waukon. Led by our early childhood partners, the tour leads families around the store, showing them the ins and outs of shopping on a budget.


I must admit I was hesitant to attend the tour. I considered myself an expert in the land of healthy. What more could I, a nutrition educator, gardener, and food lover, have to learn about grocery shopping? The answer, as you may have guessed, is everything. I learned the benefits of comparing fresh, frozen, and canned fruits and vegetables. I had never thought to look at the sodium content of my canned vegetables (spoiler alert: its shocking) or the amount of sugar in canned fruits. I never thought to buy produce in season at its peak and freeze for later use. These ideas are second nature to some and revolutionary for me.


For the grand finale, parents were challenged to create a healthy meal for just ten dollars. The meal ideas were nearly endless. Once you know what to buy and how to compare to find the best price, the sky is the limit. The families were thankful for all of the knowledge and needless to say, I was beyond impressed. The tour gave participants simple, concrete values to consider when shopping. If more people had this experience, I am confident that health outcomes would look different for many Americans. I often hear that “eating healthy is expensive” or “takes too much time”. These thoughts show the lack of knowledge prevalent among many adults. Through planning and reading labels, healthy recipes transform into easy, inexpensive, and delicious. Grocery store tours arm participants with this knowledge, one family at a time.



Walk, Bike, or Roll

The students came in waves, cruising towards the school on two wheels with a youthful intensity. With bright red faces, they patiently stood in line while I recorded names. At the height of the rush hour, the wait was fifteen students deep, each concerned that I recorded their name with the utmost accuracy. “Did you get my name?” “Did you write down my sister’s name, she biked too!” “Make sure you get my name, I am in Ms. F’s class!”


What event was this you wonder? It was Bike to School Day 1National Bike to School Day on May 7th. Wings Park Elementary had over 70 students ride to school to celebrate! Both elementary bike racks were overrun, with bikers exceeding the capacity for storage. For their efforts, students received freebies, entrance into a drawing, and a delicious, healthy breakfast smoothie compliments of food service. The principle, Dan Ratcliff, was completely blown away by the turn out. “We should have this many students bike everyday, this is just incredible”.


I was rather surprised myself, yet I should have known better. Wings Park students enjoy a variety of commutes to school. Bike to School Day 3 All six of our walking school buses this year have had a minimum of twenty students, sometimes we have exceeded fifty! Walk, bike, or roll – it doesn’t matter. These students will always come to school in style.


The event was inspiring, yet it saddens me that everyday is not full of overflowing bike racks. Most students are driven to school who could ride. This is not an easy fix, but can be improved with the education and outreach – and smoothies don’t hurt either.

A Spring in My Step

“If this were a TV show, it would be called the Walking School Bus. You know, like the Magic School Bus, but better”.


“This is so fun, we should do this every day”.


“I love walking to school”.

These are the happy musings of elementary school students that greeted the spring revival of the walking school bus in Oelwein; over fifty children walked to school during its return in April. DSCN1334Held monthly, the event is a fantastic opportunity for exercise before the school day. This is the first year of the walking school bus, and the pilot is a huge success thanks to the dedication of district staff Terri Zuck and Barb Schmitz. These two women go to great lengths to ensure the well-being of their students. They constantly seek out opportunities for healthy living, from after school cooking classes to summer school garden activities. Never afraid to think outside the box, Terri and Barb will try anything once! DSCN1324Thanks to their collaborative efforts, it has been a phenomenal year for our wellness efforts in Oelwein. The district has hosted a 1K race, Parent Empowerment Workshops, taste tests at Conferences, fitness camps, and regular nutrition lessons in grades K – 3. Outside of school, Barb and Terri have become my friends, turning Oelwein into a home away from Decorah. Each graciously hosts me overnight when I am in town, serving me delicious food and making me feel like family. Without Barb and Terri, I would have been lost and not nearly as effective in my service. Their guidance has transformed the district into a welcoming place, eager to enhance student and staff health. With these women on my side, I have a spring in my step at the school year draws to a close, gladly planning future projects to come. DSCN1349