FoodCorps is sending passionate, dedicated service members to American communities hoping to revolutionize the way we eat.
Many of us have heard the statistics - about one-third of American adults and approximately 17% (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents aged 2 to 19 years are obese. One in seven low-income, preschool-aged children are also considered as such.
These numbers can be overwhelming, and when faced with a stagnating economy, high unemployment and a deeply divided Congress, it’s hard to see a solution.
But in 2009, when President Obama signed the Kennedy Serve America Act into law, expanding the AmeriCorps program, one group of people saw the opportunity for change.
Debra Eschmeyer, who previously worked for the National Farm to School Network and the Food and Community Fellowship program, was one of those individuals.
“It’s been designed from the grassroots. Like any good garden, our roots run deep and broad.”
They collected ideas from farmers, activists, school administrators and teachers - and this past August, they placed 50 members in 10 different sites across the country.
The program is funded by AmeriCorps as well as national and local foundations across the country. It targets communities with high numbers of subsidized school lunches and poor access to fresh produce.
A key component of the program is community engagement. Members are working within already existing non-profits that have established ties with local schools and farmers.
Their aim is not to barrel into communities and lecture about health regulations and statistics, but to make long-term changes in the way people think about, buy and eat food.
“We’re trying to make it so we’re not necessary in the community. We’ll only be there for as long as we’re needed to move ahead,” Eschmeyer said. “Beyond what they’re putting in their mouth, we want them to have an appreciation of agriculture, of what it means. It’s not dirt, it's soil.”
The program is two-fold; it seeks to provide human capital where it is sorely needed and also to train a new generation of food movement activists.
Abigail Phillips finished her undergraduate degree this past May and is working with the Mississippi Roadmap to Health Equity in Jackson, Mississippi. She’s originally from St. Paul, Minnesota, but has traveled all over the world working in sustainable agriculture and social services geared towards youth.
Phillips admits that there was definitely some culture shock when she first arrived, but that she’s been won over by “Southern hospitality.”
“I’ll bump into a parent on my way to a meeting and talk for half an hour. But when I get to the meeting late I realize that everyone else did the same thing.”
Her experience is another key part of FoodCorps - the program encourages members to integrate their passion and drive for the food movement into the local communities where they are living.
Phillips works at two different schools, building school gardens with the students, teaching the kids about healthy eating and how to grow and prepare different foods in the garden.
“The experiential component of the program is the most important part. They plant seeds, get their hands dirty and watch them grow. As a teacher I ask all of the questions. I ask the kids to lead the class,” she said.
"I retained the info I figured out myself, rather than the info I was told," added Phillips about her own education.
Kirsten Gerbatsch, another FoodCorps member who grew up in New Jersey, is currently working at the Michigan Land Use Institute in Traverse City, Michigan.
She too just finished her undergraduate degree in May. She knew she wanted to be working in the food movement but FoodCorps had special appeal.
“I wouldn’t have access to the kind of resources I do now if I was at a farm or a non-profit. This is a really special opportunity, to get to meet the leaders of this movement,” Gerbatsch said.
Like Phillips, Gerbatsch has also learned much about the particulars of her community in the short time she’s been there.
“It’s a very rural area, a strong agricultural economy, but that doesn’t mean that food access isn’t a problem here,” said Gerbatsch. “It doesn’t mean there’s a healthy connection to food systems.”
Gerbatsch also says that the people she’s met - the families, teachers and administrators - all want her to succeed. But it’s clear to her that teachers have too much on their plates to handle nutritional education alone.
She works to integrate her curriculum with other teachers’ classrooms, plans field trips to local farms and breaks down complex nutritional information, like mysterious food labels, into information that is more applicable to kids’ lives.
School lessons range from making salsa to exercises that illustrate to students the economics behind food distribution.
One of Gerbatsch's young students was struck by the unfairness of an exercise where he played the part of a “farmer” who watches his profit dry up as other players (distributers, drivers, store owners, etc) each take a piece of the pie.
Both Phillips and Gerbatsch hope to involve the local community in the development and maintenance of the community gardens, with the hope that the gardens will continue to flourish after they leave.
They are also trying to build up relationships between school administrators, local store owners and local farmers.
Each small step is a success – whether it’s a pilot program testing out if fresh produce in convenience stores will sell out before it goes bad, or getting locally sourced food on the school menus once a month.
But those small steps add up. FoodCorps hopes to double its ranks next year and by 2020 they hope to have 1,000 service members in all 50 states.
“School lunches are the most regulated meal in the U.S. - you’re feeding 32 million kids a day,” Eschmeyer said.
“I’m so impressed with how amazing these service members are. They are really dedicated to helping the community. And they are helping themselves as the same time. It’s an amazing road.”