The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Youth Program Series: FoodCorps

Youth Program Series: FoodCorps

In the News

May 27, 2013

What if we could teach our school children about food from the ground up, giving them the farm to table tools they need to become healthy adults? Sounds like a dream, doesn’t it? Now, thanks to the vision of some passionate educators, this dream is a reality coming soon to an elementary school near you.

FoodCorps is a national program with a unified goal – to connect kids to real food and help them grow up healthy. FoodCorps applies the public service model proven by Teach for America, City Year and Habitat for Humanity to the pressing problems of childhood obesity, hunger, healthy food access and diet-related disease. Like those programs, FoodCorps is a grantee of AmeriCorps, and, like those programs, FoodCorps puts citizens at the center of the solution.

“We believe that through the hands and minds of emerging leaders, we can give all youth an enduring relationship with healthy food so that we grow a nation of well-nourished children: children who know what healthy food is, how it grows and where it comes from, and who have access to it every day,” says Debra Eschmeyer, co-founder and Vice President of Policy and Partnerships for FoodCorps.

FoodCorps’ three-pillared strategy (knowledge, engagement and access) is built to increase childrens’ knowledge of food and nutrition, improve their attitudes toward healthy eating, and create continuous opportunities for them to eat nutritious food in the school cafeteria. It is through their hands-on experience in school gardens and related classroom activities that young people begin to learn about how food impacts their health, become more willing to try new vegetables and fruits, make healthier life choices, and become lifelong stewards of a resilient food and agricultural system. 

“If you offer these foods on lunch trays, but don’t give children a chance to taste test, or grow them with their own hands, the food may well end up in the trash. If you engage children in growing these foods in the garden but don’t present daily opportunities for them to eat the foods in the lunchroom, the garden lesson is less effective. If you talk about healthy food and where it comes from, but don’t offer hands-on experiences and chances to eat it every day, the lesson doesn’t land. These ingredients are interdependent,” says Eschmeyer.

There are 100,000 public schools across the country where 32 million children eat school food 180 days a year – and they are the front lines in our nation’s response to childhood obesity. Eschmeyer says we have a responsibility to make sure that what we feed our kids in school is healthy, nourishing food, because if we don’t, the status quo will get worse. For the first time in history, due to obesity, children in the United States have a lower life expectancy than their parents. With 1 in 3 children overweight or obese, we now find ourselves in the midst of an epidemic, one with long-term consequences for our nation’s public health, economy, and quality of life.

Food has unfortunately become a necessary evil for some, confusing for others.  And it shouldn’t be. Food is part of the solution. Food is community. Food is tradition. Food is joy. The food associations and habits we make as kids are the ones we will turn to as adults and teach our own children. Let’s do it right from the start,” she adds. 

Eschmeyer says they have gotten a tremendous response to FoodCorps so far, both from communities who have service members, and from people applying to be service members. Each year they receive around 1,000 applications for between 50 to 80 spots. Applicants fill out an online application and then, if they make it to the second round, they are interviewed by their potential host sites. A term of service is one calendar year, though many service members decide to do a second. 

Service members have daily opportunities to see kids get giddy with excitement to pull a carrot out of the ground, or see kids who ordinarily struggle in school thrive and blossom in the garden or find their talents during a cooking lesson. Kirsten Gerbatsch, a service member serving her second year in Traverse City, Michigan, says that she has received nothing but positive feedback about the experience, both from students and parents.

“I have had a parent of an elementary school student approach me and say, ‘I don’t know what you did today in the lunchroom, but my daughter told me she tried winter squash today and that she loved it! How did you do it?’ This parent was all too amazed that her very picky-eating daughter had tried roasted delicata squash and even more so that she enjoyed it!” says Gerbatsch.

Kaily Mione, a 3rd Grade Teacher at one of the FoodCorps schools in Boston, adds, “The garden has allowed the students to have a hands-on approach to learning. It has brought ‘real world’ experiences into the classroom, by allowing students to get their hands dirty. As a teacher it is exciting to see my students so engaged in learning.”

For the program to make as big an impact as possible, Eschmeyer says that they need to grow to reach more schools and more kids, and they’d eventually like to be in all 50 states. To that end, they are growing each year – FoodCorp started in 200 schools in 10 states and will be in more than 300 schools in 15 states this fall. Ultimately, the goal is to institutionalize the Farm to School program into the school food environment so that it’s no longer a program, but just the way it is.

“We're already paying $190 billion a year treating the medical costs associated with obesity. The time to act is now,” says Eschmeyer.