Countless seeds have been planted and produce harvested since Mary Grace Stoneking arrived in Van Buren two years ago.

Assigned as the first-ever FoodCorps representative to the Van Buren School District, Stoneking’s arrival signaled a shift in the way VBSD approached nutrition education and ushered in a new way of thinking about food and its origins for Van Buren students.

Stoneking came to VBSD in the summer of 2016 after King and Tate Elementary schools were selected for FoodCorps, a national initiative designed to connect kids to real food and help them grow up healthy. Implemented by AmeriCorps, the program partners with local schools and organizations to engage children and help give them knowledge about, and access to, nutritious foods.

“When we applied and received a FoodCorps service member, we didn’t fully know what to expect,” said VBSD Activities Administrator Drew Cone. “We were hoping for some gardens and extra support educating students about nutrition and the reasons why it is important.”

Cone said the district quickly realized that Stoneking had an even greater vision for the program. Her passion for nutrition and access to healthy foods led her to become a part of FoodCorps and have served as the driving factors in her work.

The North Carolina native took part in an urban gardening program while in college and worked on farms during her summers. Upon graduating with a degree in philosophy, she decided to do something that would enable her to promote healthy living and impact social change.

“Food was a way to tie in all those issues for me,” she said.

Stoneking applied to the FoodCorps program and was assigned to Van Buren.

“The first few months were terrifying because I was in a whole different town, with all new people,” she said. “I was busy building relationships and figuring out my routine and role. There was definitely a learning curve, but I felt welcomed by everyone and supported.”

Working closely with school leaders, Stoneking began the process of getting students in the garden. She took them outside to get their hands dirty and to teach them about how food is grown. She also came to classrooms to share about gardening and nutrition.

Stoneking worked with King staff to expand the school’s existing garden. At Tate, she let students help map out beds and decide what would be grown in the newly constructed garden. In the process, Stoneking helped secure key support and funds for the projects.

“Tate’s garden became a true community effort,” Stoneking said.

Many parents, local businesses, and volunteers stepped up to build the gardens and add other elements, including a chicken house. Grants from the Captain Planet Foundation and the Van Buren Education Foundation also allowed the district to create project learning gardens, which teach students and visitors about the growing process.

Nutrition education has also been foundational to the program and framework set up by Stoneking. She has spent a great deal of time teaching students about the nutritional and economic value of growing their own food.

“We’ve stopped thinking about where our food comes from. People just don’t think about what they put in their bodies,” she said.

Stoneking has demonstrated how to make good food choices and given students opportunities to sample new fruits and vegetables. Creative activities such as “take a selfie with a fruit you love,” and polling students about their favorite lettuce, proved popular, as did lunchtime taste tests featuring fresh produce from the school garden.

For some, it was their first exposure to certain fruits and vegetables. Many were surprised to discover that they liked the new foods and that they can grow them on their own at home. Stoneking has also sought to educate students’ families about good nutrition.

“I am very passionate that everyone should have access to healthy foods,” she said.

Stoneking helped organize King and Tate’s first-ever family cooking nights earlier this year. She also encourages students to take home foods they have harvested from the garden to enjoy with family members.

Stoneking’s success at King and Tate helped VBSD secure an additional FoodCorps representative to serve at the Parkview and Rena campuses for 2017-18. Under the direction of FoodCorps member Delaney Farris, Parkview expanded its on-site garden, adding new beds and a chicken coop.

In January, Rena constructed its very first garden utilizing volunteers from PTA and the community. Parkview also added a greenhouse on campus and hosted multiple Farmer’s Market mornings for families. Several schools also offer Sprout Scouts clubs, which provide even more hands-on gardening opportunities for students.

Cone credits the incredible success of the gardening program to Stoneking and the work she has put into instilling FoodCorps principles in Van Buren.

“Mary Grace has taken our health and wellness initiatives to a new level,” Cone said. “When she first came to Tate and King and would poll students in the cafeteria, many were unable to identify different vegetables. Now, students are harvesting their own veggies in the gardens they helped build and maintain. In less than a year, Tate went from having a lot of unused land, to now boasting an award-winning garden area, where you will constantly find students, faculty, and families enjoying. King School has also been recognized for the ‘Harvest of the Month’ taste test program Stoneking implemented. She has also helped VBSD earn more than $40,000 in grant money.”

Stoneking said she is elated by the growth of the program, as well, and derives great joy from seeing students expand their pallets.

“The best is when I hear things such as, ‘I used to hate lettuce, but now I love it,’ or when teachers tell me how they have incorporated these lessons in their own classroom,” she said.

Watching the students in the garden is also thrilling to her.

“It is a magical experience for them. They love seeing something come from almost nothing, she said.”

Another highlight for Stoneking was being recognized by Go. Asa Hutchinson for the gardens at King and Tate.

“Being awarded the Arkansas Garden of the Year Awards for both of those was awesome,” she said. “It was a culmination of all the work we put in there.”

After two incredibly successful years, Stoneking will soon conclude her final few weeks as Van Buren’s FoodCorps service member. She will transition out of the program, which limits participants to two years of service. Although it will no longer be in her hands after July 1, she is excited about the future of Van Buren’s gardening initiative.

“I am most excited to see it hopefully become sustainable,” Stoneking said.

VBSD has established a farm to school committee to explore ways in which the initiative can expand district-wide and eventually become self-sustainable at each school.

“There is still so much room to grow and Van Buren is in a place where it can expand the program and become a leader in the River Valley,” Stoneking said.

She hopes the district’s program will serve as a model for other schools hoping to launch similar initiatives.

“Van Buren is definitely getting the attention of people in the region,” she said. “It is in a perfect place to ‘blossom’ and I am so grateful to have been a part of it.”