by Bruce E. Boyers
Last year they built and revitalized 411 school and community gardens, tending with kids some 13 football fields of fresh and healthy food. They taught more than 67,000 children about eating nutritiously. In cafeterias they did 882 taste-test events, where kids got a chance to try healthy food. They served up some 46,000 pounds of fresh, locally grown produce in school cafeterias around the country, introduced more than 200 healthy recipes at school meals, and made 1,849 connections between schools and farmers or food producers.
All of this was accomplished by FoodCorps: a nationwide team of leaders that connects kids to real food and helps them grow up healthy.
The Operation behind the Success
Since their founding in 2009, FoodCorps has rapidly tapped into successful methods for not only giving schoolchildren access to healthy food but also getting kids fully involved and on board with their own health and food consumption.
“FoodCorps believes there are three ingredients that are required for kids to really develop a positive, lifelong relationship with healthy food,” Curt Ellis, co-founder and CEO of FoodCorps, explained to Organic Connections. “We call those three ingredients knowledge, engagement and access.
“In the case of knowledge, kids need to know what healthy food is and where it comes from. They need great hands-on nutrition education where they get a chance to meet farmers and learn about food—not just by looking at a poster on a wall concerning food groups or food pyramids, but actually understanding where it comes from.
“Then, once you’ve taught kids what healthy food is, you have to give them a gateway to try it. [pullquote]We see school gardens as this powerful opportunity for children to engage with healthy food, grow it themselves, take pride in it, learn to cook it, then eat it and enjoy it[/pullquote].
“Finally, it’s not enough to just teach kids what healthy food is and get them excited about it; we have to also give them reliable access to it every day in their school lunches. Thirty-two million kids eat school food five days a week in this country. In the low-income communities like the ones FoodCorps serves, kids are often getting half their calories from school meals. So, what we feed kids in school and what we teach them about food ultimately goes on to affect how they feel, how they learn, how long they are going to live, and how productive they are going to be over the course of their lives.”
Engaging an Established Network
FoodCorps conducts its work through AmeriCorps, a twenty-year-old nonprofit volunteer organization that engages more than 80,000 Americans in intensive service each year at nonprofits, schools, public agencies, and community- and faith-based groups across the country.
“We’re leveraging a new generation of people who are excited about food systems, and equity in food systems in particular,” said Cecily Upton, FoodCorps’ co-founder and vice-president of programs. “Our 125 service members across the country are stationed in communities working at what we call service-site partners. These are community-based organizations that have a history of doing this work, have broad support and buy-in from community members surrounding this work, and need the help of a service member to build their capacity and to serve more people.”
On the Ground
Both Ellis and Upton have had the chance to see FoodCorps’ activities up close, and also to have relayed to them some remarkable stories of the organization’s work.
“One fantastic experience I had was meeting with a FoodCorps service member of ours in Oregon at one of the school gardens where she teaches,” Ellis related. “But it actually wasn’t she who led us on the tour of the garden—it was one of the kids she had the chance to teach. This little girl took us around the whole place, pointing out every single plant and reciting its name and telling us something special about it. It was a sign of just how much knowledge our service member had imparted to this girl, and also the sense of ownership that young student had over the school garden. It was really her place and she wanted to show it off to us. That felt really terrific.”
Upton then recounted a story from her experience. “I was in Lewiston, Maine, last winter and visiting Corbin, our service member who served with St. Mary’s Nutrition Center there at the time. The Nutrition Center works closely with a lot of elementary and middle schools. Lewiston is an old mill town in rural Maine that has been through a lot of economic troubles in the past couple of decades and has actually become a hub for several efforts. Interestingly they have a remarkable and growing Somalian population, and many of their kids are in school.
“While I was there I was able to attend what Corbin called the Secret Composters Cooking Club, which he had devised with his middle-school students. It was an after-school cooking club that tested out different recipes. The day that I was there they were testing recipes that were going to be potentially served to their peers as part of the school lunch program. The school system’s food service director had asked Corbin to come up with some recipes that could be served to the rest of the student body, to try them out with his cooking club first, see which one they liked the best, and then that would be tried out on the lunch line.
“It was marvelous watching these young middle-school-age Somalian girls in their colorful headscarves cooking, smashing up avocado, slicing all of these different ingredients and following the recipe. These kids had basically been uprooted from their home country because of violent conflicts and dropped in the middle of a cold and snowy rural town in south-central Maine; and here they were, totally engaged in this after-school club that was just really about cooking and working together as a team to make those recipes.”
Upton also shared an on-the-ground story that had been passed on to her. “Last year our service member Daniel in Traverse City, Michigan, decided that he wanted to try to make some changes in the lunchroom. He had learned when he first started that there might not be a lot of eagerness from the food service staff to embrace this change. So instead of going in and saying, ‘I know exactly what we should do. I have all these ideas; listen to me,’ he just went in, in the morning, put on a hairnet and said, ‘How can I help you?’ He went every morning before school started, for weeks on end, and chopped vegetables or opened packages. He didn’t make any comments, didn’t make any judgments, and didn’t have any agenda; he just wanted to build relationships with the food service staff.
“Over time Daniel gained their trust, so was given access to the cafeteria for some of his taste-testing lessons and cooking classes. Eventually he was actually able to build a relationship with the food service director, such that the food service director asked him for his help in developing a new soup recipe—they wanted to use local squash for this soup. Daniel helped them source all the squash.
“The food service director was excited, but was still not convinced that the kids would even like it. So Daniel did some work with the children in the garden and the classroom to get them excited about squash. The day came for them to serve the soup, and they put it out on the lunch line and it was just gone within minutes; the kids ate it up and really loved it.
“Afterwards Daniel could see the food service director and his staff had this enormous sense of pride that they had created this new recipe; they hadn’t just opened a package and microwaved some food that had arrived preprocessed. They did something from scratch from local ingredients. They had served it to their kids and the kids had eaten it. There was a real transformation of the food service staff’s interest and enthusiasm for these types of programs after they saw that it was so personally satisfying for them.”
Lifetimes of Dedication
In looking into the backgrounds of just two of the co-founders, it is no wonder that the composite dedication of FoodCorps has been so successful.
Curt Ellis made his first impact on our food system with a now well-known documentary. “I got interested in the injustices of our food system when I was in college,” he said. “And then I made a documentary called King Corn with a cousin of mine and a good friend from college. That film told the story of much of what is broken in our food system today—the corn-fed confinement of fast-food meat that makes up so much of the modern American diet and modern diets of American kids.
“In traveling with the film, I visited a whole bunch of college campuses around the country where we were screening it. I met a generation of young people who were incredibly passionate about food, health and social justice. They believed they had what it took to transform this big problem of the way we’re raising a generation of kids to eat in this country. In 2009 when the co-founders of FoodCorps came together, I really found an outlet for what to do with that energy.”
During her college years, Cecily Upton farmed in Italy and India. “My work when I was farming was my first introduction to the food system beyond the gardening I did as a kid growing up,” she said. “When I began my career life, I connected with Slow Food USA and worked for them for a number of years. It was there I learned about the difficulties that children face every day in accessing fresh, healthy food. There were many things I had taken for granted growing up in a semirural community with parents who loved to garden. Until I worked for Slow Food USA I didn’t understand how unique that was in our everyday society here in the United States.
“As I learned more about the challenges that kids faced and the lunches they might find on their plates each day, I got very interested and excited about figuring out ways that we could change that.” And in 2009, with FoodCorps, she took her next major step in doing so.
Getting Their Hands Dirty
In the end, if there’s a single successful motivating factor in the work FoodCorps does, it is getting children to participate in the production of their own food. Ellis has seen and experienced it himself—from an early age. “My favorite childhood memories are of time spent at my dad’s knee in his vegetable garden,” he recalled. “That was the chance to grow a little bit of food myself and realize just how good fruits and vegetables can taste when you actually have been the person responsible for growing them.
“And that’s an experience we try to give every child we work with at FoodCorps: to grow food themselves and take pride in its care and creation and be able to cook it into something really exciting to taste. The studies bear out that that’s an approach that works. Kids who participate in school garden programs are more likely to eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and to be comfortable with the fact that sometimes foods are green and leafy—and that’s okay, even if they didn’t come out of a brightly colored package.”
Cecily Upton agreed. “I think the wonderful thing about the work we do at FoodCorps is that we are making real impactful change in these communities, and it’s done in a joyful way. The kids are out in the garden, getting their hands dirty growing food; then they’re cooking that food up, learning about all the tastes and smells and all the senses that they use in experiencing real food for the first time; and then they get to put it on their lunch trays. It is very exciting, fun work, and I’m inspired by what we do every day.”
For more information about FoodCorps, please visit www.foodcorps.org