FoodCorps plants food activism in American schools
October 12th, 2011
09:05 AM ET
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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.

Six diverse individuals worked together to create FoodCorps - a nationwide effort to helps kids engage in their food systems, both at school and at home.

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.”

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Filed under: Childhood Obesity • Food Politics • Health News • News • School Lunch

soundoff (33 Responses)
  1. Aristarchus

    So, is there any evidence that programs like this actually have a significant effect on kids' eating habits?
    Any actual reduction in obesity?

    October 12, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
    • dave

      Im not convinced that school lunches are the sole cause of child obesity.

      October 12, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
  2. Dina

    Government: Stop subsidizing corn. Citizens: Stop eating crap.

    October 12, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
    • Tea Party Express

      Bingo, but don't stop there. I thought this country was supposed to be about capitalism yet everywhere I look, I see food subsidizes. Cut the subsidies, cut the taxes. Let the real cost of something be the cost. The problem will fix itself.

      October 12, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
    • PaleoRules

      That's a start. Also, add... Nutritionists and Dieticians: stop promoting ingestion of grains (even whole) over frutis, nuts and vegetables! Stop vilifying animal-based proteins and saturated fats. MEDIA: please learn some science: make an effort to READ and UNDERSTAND the actual study and its real implications before reporting what someone says about the study as a headline. USDA: stop taking your cues on nutrition from the grain and dairy industries and anyone else who has an interest in making people eat more x than y. (Take your Food Pyramids and MyPlate and shove 'em.)

      October 12, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
      • Lisa


        October 13, 2011 at 11:53 pm |
  3. Big George in Big D

    Where's Michelle in the picture?

    October 12, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
    • Corey

      she's there too!! she's in the background, the one wearing yellow with black stripes

      October 12, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
  4. Chris Christie

    I like donuts, lots and lots of donuts.

    October 12, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
  5. Buzz Aldrin

    As the recession gets worse, so will obesity. It's expensive to eat right, and healthy. It also takes a lot more time and effort. Much easier to go to mcdonalds for the $5 big and nasty combo, wash it down with fries and a sugary soda.

    October 12, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
    • josh

      I disagree. I actually cut the fast food from my diet because of my budget. I'm now eating simple but healthy foods like 70 cent cans of tuna, beans, rice and lots of carrots and spinach. It's MUCH cheaper than eating fast food and it feels so much better. Also, kicking soda for water is a no brainer on so many levels.

      October 12, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
    • PaleoRules

      This is an excuse repeated by those who do not want to cook or who are addicted to fast food. Real food can also be inexpensive and quick. e.

      October 12, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
    • Andrea M

      For the same cost as two big mac meals, I can feed my fiancee and I much better food. I can easily throw together fish, rice, and a veg for the same price, sometimes even less depending on the sale. I can make us lentil stew and rice for about $1.25 per serving and I usually forget how filling lentils are and make too much for us to eat. It's really not that hard

      October 12, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
    • Al

      The real cost of eating fast food is the medical bills and time lost from work due to illness. It is no secret that junkfood consumption leads to or at least substantially contributes to heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. When weighing up the costs of food, junk food plus medical > healthy food plus medical.

      October 12, 2011 at 8:11 pm |
    • boogietime

      A can of beans, a tomato, a pepper and a half a chicken breast costs $3.50 and makes a tasty, filling, healthy meal. You could do even better if you cooked the beans yourself, but I understand not everyone wants to spend all that time soaking and then boiling the beans.

      October 13, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
  6. Lee

    It is easy. Cut carbs where possible. Eat tasty but healthy foods. Following on the cutting carbs, don't keep candy, chips or any sugary/starchy snacks in the house. Let them choose some vegetables and fruits they like and make sure they are available all the time. Learn to enjoy more healthy snack options like beef jerky, cheese sticks, nuts, dried fruits. Fruit juices and full sugar sodas should be off the menu, there is not much worse that those. They are the most highly concentrated sugar in liquid form you can get. Instead try sugar free soft drinks and energy drinks, flavored waters, plain water, even coffee and tea are better choices. Finally do not obsess about fat content unless they are eating many more calories than they should. Avoid trans fats but all other fats are fine.

    October 12, 2011 at 12:58 pm |

    My nieces are 11 & 8 and never played Kick the Can :,-(

    October 12, 2011 at 11:32 am |

    Instead of burning leaves – PLEASE compost & if you absolutly must remove your grass clippings put them in your compost pile ! It's cheap , easy & does not pollute your neighborhood :-)

    October 12, 2011 at 11:29 am |
    • tim

      compost into your own yard grass clippings should remain in the grass, any other solution requires more fertilizer hence polution. Let the grass be the nutrients for the grass, and the vegitation naturally recycle

      October 12, 2011 at 7:09 pm |

        I know one person that removes his grass clippings - I know it should be left where it lays after it is cut ....

        October 12, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
  9. Tea Party Express

    Or we could, I dunno, quit spending tax dollars on subsidized Tator Tots and Chicken Nuggets in schools.

    I'm appalled at the filth we feed our children in the failed government run educational system.

    October 12, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • NSfromIndiana

      Would you rather privatize the system so that the main focus is profit? We would be lucky if these kids even got a meal if schools were privatized.

      October 12, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
      • Tea Party Express

        Feed your own kids and learn how to take responsibility. God forbid we expect somebody to take care of their kids.

        October 12, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
      • PaleoRules

        ..because private schools don't feed their kids and privately run schools would not have an interest in feeding students well so they can perform well? Or do you think privately operated schools would be less responsive to parents than in the current system? What you said makes no sense.

        In regard to school lunches today: they are almost universally garbage (worse than McDonalds) and under the current system I have no rights as a parent to know what is in the food they want to feed my kids. My choices are let them eat it or feed them myself. I choose the latter so that I can keep the meals "brain healthy." I am stunned at what I see parents letting their kids eat on a daily basis. It is a recipe for disaster.

        October 12, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
      • Janie@PaleoRules

        "In regard to school lunches today: they are almost universally garbage "

        Grand sweeping generalizations. You are full of sh it and I bet you "teach" your kids the same sh it. Poor me, I'm a victim.

        October 13, 2011 at 7:46 am |
    • TR

      Failed government run school systems?

      Please pull your head out of the sand. Schools in America werent always run by the government. The people realized that the nation would be far better off if everyone could have a chance to learn to read and write regardless of their ability to pay for an education for their kids. So, pubilc school systems were created. And it worked. The vast majority of Americans can read and write. Didnt you attend a public school? Can you read and write now? How can you now say the "government run school systems" are a failure unless you are completely misinformed by your "tea bagger propoganda" or are a complete liar? If you don't like this country, why don't you move to country that doesn't have a public school system? There's plenty of them out there and they are nicely called "developing nations."

      October 14, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
  10. Sybaris

    and yet another way is to remove all the junk food from school menus and pitch the vending machines.

    October 12, 2011 at 10:44 am |

    Heirloom seeds –
    like Tomatoes ? – Totally Tomatoes
    Park Seed has a great catalog too !!!

    October 12, 2011 at 9:46 am |

    This is Great !! Everyone can get involved in their own community – local Gov. Extensions . If you like to garden become a Master Gardener ! You will not regret it :-)

    October 12, 2011 at 9:25 am |
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