On a recent drizzly morning at Geneva Elementary School, AmeriCorps garden educators Tessa Bolon and Tristen Pohlman led Geneva fifth grade students through hands on soil and plant activities. While one group of students was testing the soil temperature in different areas of the school garden (including the worm compost bin!) and talking about seed germination, another group was busy clearing garden beds of plant material and planting out garlic to grow in the coming months.
This is just one example of how, rain or shine, the staff and the AmeriCorps volunteers of Common Threads Farm teach and garden alongside students in Bellingham Public Schools, sharing valuable lessons in plant and soil science, as well as in educating students about where food comes from. As a local non-profit, the mission of Common Threads is simple: “connecting kids to healthy food in the garden, in the kitchen and at the table.”
Since 2009, Common Threads has been an important community partner working in our schools. Their activities include outdoor learning in the gardens, as well as cooking in classrooms, preparing healthy menus that students love. Their funding comes from many sources, most importantly from the schools and their PTAs, Career and Technical Education (CTE) funding, as well as critical grants from the Whatcom Community Foundation, the Schultz Family Foundation, and the Whole Kids Foundation.
During the pandemic, the above-mentioned external funding sources kept Common Threads afloat while school PTA support was on hiatus due to school closures, according to Laura Plaut, executive director of Common Threads. It was critical funding during the year of closures since PTA support is necessary for the non-profit to succeed.
However, during those long months of the pandemic and school closures, the Common Threads Farm volunteers had an important role to play. They clocked 2,100 human hours helping to distribute student meals given out from March 2020 to August 2021. Onsite at the Central Kitchen, these volunteers were integral to packaging up shelf stable food into boxes.
According to Food Services culinary program supervisor Mataio Gillis of the district’s Central Kitchen, the effort to feed children “was met with the enthusiastic presence of the Common Threads AmeriCorps team.”
“From packing bagged meals, to helping build the multi-day meal boxes,” Gillis continues, “these volunteers were with us every step of the way. Our pandemic-era meal box production was made possible by the spirit and perseverance of our Common Threads partners.”
In addition to the innumerable hours volunteering to help the district Food Services team feed our families, Common Threads also delivered pounds and pounds of fresh produce as bonus food in the meals distributed last school year. In 2020, Common Threads harvested and distributed nearly 2,200 pounds of produce out of their school gardens, and in 2021, when more of the food was being enjoyed immediately by kids in the gardens, they still distributed nearly 1,200 pounds of fresh produce. The 2021 school garden harvest also included more than 1,300 bunches of fresh chard, kale and salad greens that were distributed to families.
As outlined in their latest annual report, the staff and volunteers at Common Threads rose up and answered the most important question when the pandemic struck: “How can we help?” And help they did.
In normal, non-pandemic years, when all kids are in person and onsite, Plaut explains the Common Threads Farm passion for service in equity terms. “We choose to focus our services in schools,” she says, “because we recognize that bell-to-bell school day programs provide equitable access for all kids.”
“Long term, our aim is to partner closely with the district to fulfill the One Schoolhouse Approach of The Bellingham Promise by making sure that all kids have a chance to joyfully learn about and experience healthy food from seed to table at school, during the school day!”
The equity, passion and commitment of Common Threads Farm is evident in our schools and in our community both during the pandemic and in normal in-person instructional times.