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Compost: A Gardner’s Basic Ally

Today, the People’s Garden hosted a workshop about composting. Pat Millner, who has done a lot of research on composting and utilizing compost at the USDA-Agricultural Research Service’s Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Maryland, taught it. It was fantastically fun and informative, and Pat brought in several examples of composters for us to see. Read more »

Getting Feedback, Building Friendships in Montana

Darlene Barnes, Regional Administrator for the FNS Mountain Plains Regional Office

Taking the time to meet the people who use FNS programs and services is the best way to understand what works.  It also helps build important relationships and gets the word out to those who most need FNS support.

FNS Administrator Julie Paradis spent the week of May 24 doing just that – on the move in Montana gathering great feedback about nutrition issues and programs across the state.  A CNR Roundtable at Lolo Elementary in Lolo, Montana brought more than 30 school lunch workers, administrators, interested parents and news media to discuss nutrition needs for Montana’s underserved children.

On the Flathead Reservation in Pablo, Montana, Paradis met with leadership of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and toured several Food Distribution Nutrition Education grant demonstration gardens designed to teach the roots of good food all the way through to learning delicious recipes for preparing home grown and commodity foods.

In Bozeman, Montana, Paradis presented a HealthierUS  Schools Gold Award to Morning Star Elementary for their excellent work in promoting exercise and healthy eating habits.

FNS Administrator Julie Paradis discusses FNS programs with Tonka Howard, host of Good Medicine, at the KSKC Public TV station on the Flathead Reservation.
FNS Administrator Julie Paradis discusses FNS programs with Tonka Howard, host of Good Medicine, at the KSKC Public TV station on the Flathead Reservation.

FNS Administrator Julie Paradis hits the track with a Lolo Elementary student as part of the school’s Mileage Club.
FNS Administrator Julie Paradis hits the track with a Lolo Elementary student as part of the school’s Mileage Club.

FNS Administrator Julie Paradis and Ron Rotzahn, Program Specialist, Helena, Montana Field Office, discuss food distribution challenges at the St. Ignatius Food Distribution center on the Flathead Reservation.
FNS Administrator Julie Paradis and Ron Rotzahn, Program Specialist, Helena, Montana Field Office, discuss food distribution challenges at the St. Ignatius Food Distribution center on the Flathead Reservation.

Student Reporter Asks Tough Questions About Improving School Meals

Cross-posted from the Let’s Move blog

By Sammi Citron, USDA Intern

Reading a Scholastic book, or attending a Scholastic book fair are both rites of passage equal in importance to the first day you walked to school by yourself, or the first time dividing fractions finally made sense. A long-standing tradition within the book-savvy crowd is the Scholastic Kid Press Corps, a group of adolescents eager to be on the front lines of reporting well before they hit their teen years. One of these kids is Jonas Hosmer.

Many twelve-year-olds might be nervous to conduct an interview with someone like Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, but not Jonas Hosmer – a preteen who declares a trip to the hobby store as the ultimate field trip and who dabbles in creating and editing videos in his very own production company – co-owned with his sister and friend – Apple Productions.

“I’m very curious, and I have an open mind to what’s going on around me,” boasts Jonas. “I enjoy interviewing people and learning more about them. Unlike some kids, I’m very comfortable talking with adults and kids, no matter who they are.”

With Jonas’s knack for interviewing, he’s a perfect fit as a member of the Scholastic Kids Press Corps., one of fifty-four student reporters located around the nation writing for Scholastic News and Junior Scholastic magazines. These magazines are featuring stories written by Hosmer and other reporters; the magazines are distributed in U.S. classrooms grades one through twelve with a combined circulation of 8 million and a reach of 25 million students, parents and teachers.

Since childhood obesity is fast becoming one of the most pressing concerns facing kids across the country, Jonas lined up questions for Secretary Vilsack that were aimed to uncover the issues related to school nutrition and ways the Obama administration is working to remedy the problem.

Like any good reporter, Jonas came prepared with a voice recorder and set to work. Seated in Secretary Vilsack’s office, the two chatted and Jonas asked questions like “why is it important for kids to have healthier lunch choices at school?,” and “how is the Let’s Move! campaign working to improve the nutrition and quality of school lunches?”

Outlining the Obama administration’s objectives, Secretary Vilsack helped Jonas to understand not only what kinds of changes kids will see in their school cafeterias when classes resume next fall, but also what steps will be taken to ensure a healthier school environment for the coming generations.

Secretary Vilsack pointed out that while improved school meals are critical to the nutrition and obesity prevention programs, another challenge lies in helping kids stay active and healthy outside of school.

When President Harry Truman signed the National School Lunch Act into effect 64 years ago, he said, “In the long view, no nation is healthier than its children,” and today, the Obama administration agrees. With the help of parents, teachers and administrators in schools throughout the country and students like Jonas, a new generation of leaders is picking up on the decades-old promise.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (left) granted Jonas Hosmer (right) a reporter with the Scholastic Kids Press Corps an interview on Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (left) granted Jonas Hosmer (right) a reporter with the Scholastic Kids Press Corps an interview on Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Small Plant Help Desk, Accepting Calls!

Beth McKew, DVM, Staff Officer, State Outreach and Technical Assistance Staff, Office of Outreach, Employee Education and Training, Food Safety and Inspection Service

If you don’t work at USDA, you may not have read the 2008 Farm Bill, which means you may not be aware of the many benefits that came out of that legislation.  One such provision directed USDA to coordinate technical assistance to small meat and poultry processors.  As a result, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), an agency within USDA committed to working with business of all sizes in support of a safe and wholesome food supply, established the Small Plant Help Desk

Small and very small processors make up more than 90% of the nation’s 6,000 federally inspected meat and poultry establishments and all of the 1,900 state inspected plants.  These small, independent businesses are often the closest and most convenient way that a farmer or rancher can bring their cows, pigs, chickens, sheep, or goats to market, and they are a critical part of the infrastructure that comprises our nation’s local and regional food systems.

Behind the Help Desk FSIS’ Staff Officers – subject-matter experts with recent in-plant experience – can assess callers’ requests and provide information and guidance materials that best meet their needs. The Help Desk not only provides such callers with step-by-step instructions, but also provides resources to assist them in understanding food safety issues relevant to the products they are producing.

Lucia Huebner from the Traveling Butcher in Hopewell, New Jersey, called the Small Plant Help Desk multiple times in search of help in starting up a federally-inspected mobile slaughter unit. Huebner’s questions ranged from those about specific federal regulations, such as potable water testing, to more general questions, such as how to coordinate her slaughter schedule with the local District Office. A Help Desk Staff Officer was able to answer her questions, put her in touch with district staff in her area, as well as connect her with a network of other small processors who have also faced the challenge of starting up a mobile slaughter unit. Huebner is still in the process of applying for a Federal Grant of Inspection, and plans to call the Help Desk again as questions arise along the way. “The Help Desk has been a fantastic resource for me,” says Huebner. “What a great feeling to know that I have someone to call when I have questions about federal inspection.”

The Help Desk can be reached at 877-374-7435, or 877 FSIS HELP, or by emailing

Lewis & Clark National Forest Hosts ‘Hands-On’ Outdoor Science Classrooms

By Phil Sammon

While many of their contemporaries across the country may have had their hands on game controllers this week, 1,700 junior high school students from Great Falls, Montana public schools had their hands on caddisfly and mayfly larvae, crayfish, snails, clams, plus a wide range of plants, seeds, and soil types – all in the name of conservation education and science.

These students all took part in a series of scientific experimentation and exploration stations at the Lewis & Clark National Forest’s Interpretive Center adjacent to Great Falls, along the Lewis & Clark National Trail and the banks of the Missouri River. The 12-day program puts students in touch with nature at six different field investigation sites, all supporting science-based curriculum and classroom preparation.

The program is a partnership with the public school system, which along with the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center staff received a grant from the Department of the Interior. The Center’s location makes it an ideal local setting for students to study, observe, experiment and make scientific conclusions based upon their findings at the six different stations. Forest Service staff, Center volunteers and teachers from the public school system, all pitch in to conduct, monitor and assist the student in their field work.

This exceptional example of conservation education in the Forest Service is a direct reflection on the national program efforts to get more kids outdoors, put more kids in the woods, and inspire students to know, experience, and want to work with the natural resources as part of their lives, to meet the needs of present and future generations.

The students rotated through each of the six stations: water, fire, botany, hydrology, ornithology, and macroinvertebrates. Special demonstrations as well as necessary scientific equipment and supplies at each gave students the right equipment for their work. At the water station, for example, students would assess water quality by testing acidity, dissolved oxygen, and phosphate/nitrate levels. At the ornithology stations, they discovered and noted that migratory birds return at different times, and learned the variance between cavity and woven nest builders.

The students, many of whom had likely never spent more than a couple hours at a time in the outdoors, spent upwards of six hours a day going from station to station. Their enthusiasm and excitement was proof to the educators and Forest Service staff that this Field Investigations Partnership was worth the effort and investment.

Jane Weber, Director of the Interpretive Center explained, “We are excited to have the students experience place-based science within their community.  It’s surprising how few have spent an entire day outdoors in their young lives. As an added benefit, the children monitor our environmental conditions over time.” Tom Moore, Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Education for Great Falls Public Schools agreed, “I have seen citizen science implemented successfully in other school districts and am pleased to see our educators build this experience into our science curriculum.

Jay Russell, Executive Director of the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center Foundation, whose organization wrote and received the grant summed the program up this way: “These children will act as our modern-day explorers. Who knows, this experience may inspire a child to explore a future academic pursuit in natural sciences.”

Federal Agencies and Tribes Gather In Nebraska to Talk Needs and Resources

Written by Vicki Schurman, USDA Rural Development, Nebraska

Ten USDA agencies and Nebraska’s four federally recognized Indian Tribes gathered earlier this month at what is believed to be the first ever Tribal Listening Session in Nebraska.  Seventy-two attendees participated in the Listening Session at the Life Long Learning Center at Northeast Community College in Norfolk that was spearheaded by the State Food and Agriculture Council. 

All of Nebraska’s headquartered Indian Tribes had both Tribal Council Leaders and Tribal Business Management representatives at the session.  Federally recognized Tribes in Nebraska are the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, Santee Sioux Nation of Nebraska, and the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. 

The guest speaker was Rural Development’s South Dakota State Director Elsie Meeks who spoke of her own experiences as a Native American and on utilizing USDA programs.  She emphasized the Obama Administration’s commitment to working with the Tribes.  Each USDA agency hosted booths for Tribal members to visit to learn more about what is available to assist them.   Breakout sessions included Land Use Management, Economic/Community Development, Health and Human Services and Housing.   All sessions were presented by USDA specialists.

A Tribal opening prayer and the Noon Prayer and Spirit Plate, customs of the Tribes, were shared with all.   Bison, a traditional food of the Tribes, was served at lunch.

Secretary Vilsack earlier today announced funding to assist Tribes in business development ventures.  To learn more click here.

Session attendees included Tribal leaders and members and USDA staff.

Session attendees included Tribal leaders and members and USDA staff.