On looks alone, it would be easy to think East End Community is a posh private school. In fact, it serves primarily low-income families here, many of them immigrants from Cambodia, Somalia and Sudan. Saks is not their teacher but a member of a new national service program, FoodCorps, which operates as a kind of Teach for America to improve school food.
Launched in August, FoodCorps has 50 members in 10 states, from Maine to Oregon and Michigan to Mississippi. Next year, FoodCorps plans to double its ranks and add several new states, not yet chosen. By 2020, it hopes to have 1,000 service members in all 50 states.
FoodCorps targets a key weakness in the growing and ever-more-fashionable effort to teach children where food comes from and wean them off french fries and pizza in the cafeteria. It puts boots on the ground to develop the programs that many educators believe are important but, in an era of drastic budget cuts, don’t have the resources to fund.
The idea for FoodCorps was born on Earth Day 2009, the same day President Obama expanded the AmeriCorps program through the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act. Executive Director Curt Ellis, who co-directed the 2007 documentary “King Corn,” about his post-college attempt to grow an acre of corn, initially envisioned a program for beginning farmers. But he and his co-founders soon realized they could reach more young people by developing nutrition education and school gardens and putting more wholesome food in the cafeteria.
The average American student receives between four and five hours of nutrition education each year, according to the School Nutrition Association. “We realized that what was needed was a holistic approach to a healthy school environment,” Ellis said.
The response to FoodCorps has been enthusiastic, to say the least. More than 100 organizations in 38 states and the District competed to lure FoodCorps members to their communities. And 1,229 people applied for the 50 spots. This, for a job that pays $15,000 a year — a salary that makes service members eligible for food stamps. “My interests have always been food and kids, and I wanted to do something that brings those two things together. So FoodCorps was pretty much a no-brainer,” said Laura Budde, a member based in Gardiner, an hour northeast of Portland.