Groundwork’s Building Resilient Communities program helps East Jordan Elementary expand its garden to table and Indigenous Foodways curriculum
“Aanii boozhoo!” says Jen Lewis, East Jordan’s school garden coordinator from Wagbo Farm and Education Center. She welcomes students to the sunny garden space with what translates to “hello, welcome” in Anishinaabemowin, the language of the local Odawa and other Anishinaabe Peoples. It also means, “I see the light in you.”
It’s a Thursday afternoon in September, and it’s pajama day. The kids seem more excited than usual, but maybe it just seemed that way with all the bright colors and fuzzy onesies catching my eye. While waiting for all the kids to arrive, I watch a fifth grader snatch a cherry tomato dangling from a nearby vine. She pops it into her mouth before sheepishly returning to the group.
I’m here to see East Jordan’s farm to school programming in action and watch it grow. With a new mobile kitchen—funded through a Groundwork’s pilot program—the school is connecting more kids in East Jordan to plump tomatoes and other garden-fresh foods, and, as Indigenous heritage lessons show, giving rich culinary context to innovative instruction.
Our Miijim (food) Makers lesson starts with an exercise based on a recording of a catchy counting song. We each hold a card—mine reads bezhig, or “one,” and I hold it up when it’s my turn. We count up to 10 and back down again in accordance with the song’s deep notes, repeating until the music starts to fade.
Bezhig means “one” in Anishinaabemowin, the language of the local Odawa and other Anishinaabe Peoples. Shown here on a card used in an Indigenous counting lesson.
By song’s end, the kids are ready to get going on the day’s food lesson: the Three Sisters teaching of mandaamin (corn), miskodiisimin (bean), and koosmaan (pumpkin or squash) and how they grow together in harmony.
East Jordan Elementary’s Title VI Program, Miijim Makers, is just one example of the learning opportunities made possible by the garden. Students in grades K–6 benefit from hands-on lessons in science, cooking, food safety, Indigenous Foodways, and other farm to school topics, with help from Title VI Director Angela Barrera, Jen from Wagbo Farm, school kitchen staff, and FoodCorps service members from Groundwork.
“Miijim Makers started in 2019 when Melissa Lyons (Head Chef and Title VI parent) and I started to collaborate,” Angela says. “Jen had already started the GardeNature Club after school, but then COVID-19 hit.” Since Wagbo wasn’t doing in-person events, and East Jordan couldn’t do after-school programming, the team brought the lessons into the school day. “It was a creative response to the crisis, and a huge shift in how we do things,” she says.
That shift—bringing the farm to school curriculum into the regular school day, for all grades and classes—also meant a change in capacity needs. Teachers could now get their students directly involved, and Jen envisioned a whole new school culture around gardening and cooking, something she’s been passionate about since she brought the garden project to life back in 2015. But that idea called for better equipment and logistics.
Angela Barrera, East Jordan’s Title VI Director, takes students to the garden for a Miijim Makers lesson.
“We realized we needed a mobile kitchen, a cart to move our equipment from classroom to garden, to have things stored all in one place, and to follow through on the final steps of prepping food from our garden,” Jen says.
That’s why Jen and her team applied for assistance through Building Resilient Communities, Groundwork’s new capacity-building program. With a $2,000 stipend and staff support, Building Resilient Communities helped East Jordan Elementary address these issues in the form of a “mobile kitchen.”
The mobile kitchen has several components. A food-grade, three-shelf utility cart wheels an assortment of cooking tools in and out of the classroom—safety knives, cutting boards, water infusers, mortar and pestle sets, a salad spinner, measuring cups, steel mixing bowls, food storage containers, and more. Other strategic investments, like a portable double burner electric range, popcorn makers, and a countertop pizza oven, stay in the classroom but can be lent out to other teachers with a scheduling system.
The mobile kitchen cart, purchased with funds from Building Resilient Communities, enables teachers to incorporate food into a range of educational subjects.
I was able to see the cart and cook gear put to use when I returned to the school in late February for another Miijim Makers lesson. Using safety scissors, students did the honor of the ribbon cutting, marking the official unveiling of the shiny new classroom equipment.
“This is all theirs. We wanted this moment to be theirs,” Angela says.
I join in on the cooking fun, visiting station after station as they concoct their recipes: mashing berries for blueberry-infused water, popping popcorn, and melting a maple sugar topping. During the lesson, Angela and Jen explain that maple syrup is a seasonal ingredient and an important Anishinaabek tradition.
The room fills with a sweet, buttery aroma of the maple coating—some kids shriek in excitement. More noises add to the chaos as two students shake paper bags of popcorn and warm, sticky topping, mixing until the treat inside is evenly coated. It sounds like marbles bouncing around in someone’s lunch pail.
By the time we are sitting and munching on our treats, the room quiets down. Third graders take turns serving infused water to their second- and first-grade peers, while FoodCorps service member Lauren deposits clumps of ooey gooey maple popcorn onto napkins.
I nibble on my popcorn, witnessing the kids around me bond over making food, trying it and (usually) liking it, sharing a meal together. I could only imagine all the memories this mobile kitchen would create for hundreds of students each year.
“This was really the first day we’re using it, but it’s already made things so much easier,” Jen shares after the class was over. “Before, we brought all of these cooking implements from home. We will have a lot less schlepping back and forth.”
“The kitchen is like a spring pilot,” Angela says. “We’re really excited to see how it develops as the year goes on, and how we can get the entire school involved.”
Jessyca Stoepker is Groundwork’s Project Coordinator for Building Resilient Communities.