FoodCorps is a nationwide service project that sends its members into schools and communities to teach nutrition, build school gardens and bring more local, fresh produce into school lunches. FoodCorps co-founder Deb Eschmeyer was recently in Des Moines to meet with Iowa members and present at a Women, Food and Agriculture Network conference.
Harvest Public Media's Kathleen Masterson talked with Eschmeyer about the project, which just launched in the fall of 2011. The following interview was edited for length and clarity.
HPM: What sparked the idea to start FoodCorps?
Eschmeyer: FoodCorps kind of started like a garden. We had many different directions and roots. We six founders came together, who all wanted to find a way where young people could get involved in the food movement, as well as finding a way to address this larger obesity epidemic and food security issues that we're having across the country. One in three children are going to be diabetic in their lifetime, one in two if they're a child who is a minority, and one in four children in the United States are hungry. FoodCorps is an answer to both food insecurity and childhood obesity,and at the same time, it gives an opportunity for emerging young leaders to have an opportunity to get experience working in the food movement.
Who are your FoodCorps members?
Right now we have 50 service members in 200 schools in 10 states and 41 sites. I know that's a lot of numbers, but the point of FoodCorps is we put a lot of human capital in high-need areas. So the schools that we work in are high-obesity, limited-resource communities. We partner with grass-roots organizations that are community based. So we give those nonprofits these amazing emerging young leaders in the form of a FoodCorps service member.
Debra Eschmeyer, FoodCorps co-founder and director of policy and partnerships (Courtesy FoodCorps)
Our FoodCorps members are amazing people who want to be public health leaders, they want to be farmers, they want to be teachers, they want to be chefs. They want to serve, they want to give back to the country. And they want to find a way to get work experience, because they do get a $15,000 stipend, and a $5,500 education award, they get health insurance and child care; so it's service, with benefits. At the same time they're providing a tremendous gift to these communities where they really need some extra attention, building gardens, providing nutrition education and getting local food into the cafeteria.
What kinds of projects do FoodCorps member work on?
So the typical day in the life of a service member varies by community, by state. The entire program is founded on community engagement, so our service members work with teachers, they work with the principal, the food service director, the non-profit, and the parents all the stakeholders who make anything work in the community. They work with them to do the nutrition classes, to build a garden, to get the local high quality food into the cafeteria, into the school meal system. That could mean having a parent meeting on a Sunday afternoon to figure out who wants to be on the school garden committee to help take care of it in the summer. Or it could mean meeting with the food service director at 7 a.m. to discuss where are we sourcing the local carrots for that salad we were talking about last week.
What's been the community reception so far?
It's been overwhelmingly positive. We're kind of the antithesis to the Jamie Oliver approach. We're not a group of super wonder heroes coming in to fix a system. We work with the community, we're there to be a helping hand to make what they want possible, we're not putting ideas in anyone's heads, we're listening to what they're wanting and we're trying to make it happen.
What have been some challenges?
I think one is actually meeting expectations, because sometimes people want change to happen really, really quickly. And it takes time to change what you're having for lunch, it takes time to make enough time in the classroom to teach a proper garden-enhanced school nutrition education. The other piece of it is sometimes finding the funding, finding the money to buy the workbook that goes with the garden curriculum, it's finding the shovel to use to build the garden bed.
How did you go about getting funding?
FoodCorps is very much a product of a lot of grass-roots work. We had a two-year planning process. We received a planning grant from AmeriCorps, from the Corporation for National Community Service, and we received a planning grant from the Kellogg Foundation.
This year our budget is $3 million. The Corporation for National Community Service requires you have a 24 percent match for your funding in the first three-year cycle, so we have that, and more than that.
Gardens. They're hot right now, you can grow healthy food and vegetables, but presumably you can't really feed a large percent of the school with a school garden. So why gardens?
Why gardens are so important is the ability to have that engagement of hands-on learning. If a child plants the seed, and they nurture it, they're going to eat it. If you think a child won't eat Brussels sprouts, if they plant it and they tend that plant, believe me, they will try it. And the other part of it, is if they grow it, they're more willing in to try it in recipes, not necessarily fresh and raw, but they'll be like, 'Oh that kale that we grew, let's make that into a kale pesto or let's mix it into a salad.' It's like anyone, if you put hard work into something, you want to reap the reward, and reaping the reward of growing is eating it.
It's really early, but do you have any tangible success stories yet?
We're only five months in, so it’s hard for us to have too much hard data, but we have reached over 26,000 kids and we've built over 200 school gardens, so those numbers have been pretty astonishing to us. And this program year, we'll probably reach over 60,000 kids, and for 50 service members to reach 60,000 kids, we're just overjoyed.
What's your personal food story? How'd you get interested in this?
I grew up on a conventional dairy farm in west central Ohio, the youngest of seven, so all I knew was farm labor. I didn't know there was anything else until I went to college. And I had no interest in going back into food and farming.
After growing up on dairy farm, a salary and vacation sounded like the best thing on the planet. And here it is. I love farming and I think every child should have access to knowing how to grow their own food, and knowing where it comes from, and I think it makes a world of difference in appreciating American culture and agriculture. I wouldn't be who I am today if I didn't grow up on farm. I feel very lucky that I had that experience.
What's the future of Food Corps? How would you like it to grow?
The future of FoodCorps is that, now we have 50 service members, and we aim to have 1,000 by 2020 and be in all 50 states, and that is our goal. And we're actually getting some pressure that we should have 10,000 service members by that time, and that obviously comes down to funding. We see the need.
We obviously have an issue right now with somewhat of a health crisis among our children, at the same time we've got this overwhelming interest of applicants, we have so many people who want to serve.