What is in this article?:
- Will FoodCorps transform the American school lunch?
- What will it take to change kids' eating habits?
Since August 2011, a new public service program has connected 25,000 children to healthy food through in-school gardens and lunch room makeovers. In this Q&A, co-founder Curt Ellis reveals the challenges of changing kids' eating habits in hopes of a healthier future.
Curt Ellis is a co-founder and the executive director of FoodCorps, a national nonprofit connecting children to healthy food. FoodCorps' first cohort of service members landed in 41 sites across 10 states in August 2011, and collectively they have reached more than 25,000 children through 137 garden projects and more than 4,200 pounds of donated produce. Ellis is one of the filmmakers behind King Corn. He is also a recipient of the Heinz Award, and a board member at Slow Food USA.
NBJ: Tell us about the model for FoodCorps.
Curt Ellis: We run a program similar to Teach for America that recruits young leaders for a year of public service. Our service members teach kids what healthy food is, give them hands-on opportunities to grow fresh food themselves in school gardens, and work with farmers and chefs to bring healthy, high-quality food into school cafeterias.
NBJ: How are you measuring your impact and success?
CE: There are near-term ways we can measure the impact FoodCorps is having on the ground—the number of children we reach, the number of gardens we build, the number of parents and community volunteers who engage in the life of food in the school. But the more important long-term metrics are going to be health outcomes—finding out whether the work we do is promoting the measurable shift in childhood obesity that we believe it will—and academic outcomes, building the evidence base that kids who eat a healthy diet are able to learn better in school. If we really want this adopted at the national level, it should be about both the health of children and the potential children have to lead full lives and contribute to American society. That requires a life free from diet-related disease, and a chance to really learn well in school. Food is central to both.
NBJ: How do you decide what aspects of healthy food to promote? Would you promote, say, organic produce in schools, or non-GMO?
CE: We’ve made a conscious decision to not draw up some national list of good foods and bad foods and impose a single, top-down vision of what school food should look like in America. I think the reality is that food is a cultural project. It’s also a local project, one that local communities deserve to have the strongest say in shaping. The way we approach our work is to bring local communities together to fi gure out how best to feed their kids. We trust that those local communities know best what is going to work right for them.
This means we have values that I think are shared by all of the researchers in school food and child health. For example, we believe kids should have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. We believe they should have the opportunity to eat food that is not overly burdened with salt, sugar and fat. But we leave the specifics of what that new school food system looks like to the local people and families and stakeholders who are going to experience it every day. I think the common sense we all have of what a healthy diet actually looks like is consistent enough that, in all the places we work, we will see more fruits and vegetables on the tray, less high-fat meat, less heavily-processed food. But I do think it is important to let that process be one that is community driven.
NBJ: Seems like you are bringing a savvy, national brand to a cause of increasing importance but fragmented resources.
CE: Yes, I think that’s true. There’s a lot of really terrific work going on around the country to get kids connected with healthy food in school. One of the things we try to do is bring those efforts under a single umbrella and really show how united we are in this work. We do want to put a big national brand on the school food movement and help take it to the next level.
NBJ: Given the rising public debate around nutrition, is interest here as high as we might suspect?
CE: The response has been great. The key engines for our work are these young leaders who we recruit for a year of modestly paid public service. We now have 50 paid service members currently in the field in 10 states, but 1,229 people applied. We also have 10 state-level partners who went through a competitive process to be chosen, considering that 108 organizations applied from 39 states and the District of Columbia. I see a steady stream of emails coming in from schools, principals, teachers and parents who want FoodCorps working in their communities. We also have a really exciting collection of corporate and philanthropic partners interested in helping us grow quickly. In some respects, our job is to manage all of this interest and make the most of it.
NBJ: How do you explain this level of interest?
CE: I think this is a watershed moment in our country’s relationship to food and agriculture. The generation that is coming of age now has decided that food really matters, and I think they have come to understand the way in which food connects to everything. It connects to our health, in terms of obesity and diet-related disease. It connects to environmental sustainability, in terms of the way we tend land and grow, process and transport food. It relates to justice and equity, in terms of the fate of the workers who are involved in producing food and the access we open to that food in communities with limited resources across the country.
Food really touches it all. I think this current generation of young leaders understands that food is fundamental. If they want to address these larger challenges in American life and culture, it all begins with food.