FoodCorps steps in to help schools do what they couldn’t otherwise afford

October 4, 2011

Editor’s note: Smarter Food is a new monthly feature about innovative people and programs on the front lines of the effort to change how food is produced and consumed in America.

— The garden at the East End Community School looks as if it has been staged for a magazine photo shoot. It sits on a hill with a panoramic view of Portland’s Casco Bay, which even on a gray, early-autumn day shimmers silver. There are tomatoes, peppers, celery, cucumbers and carrots, each with a hand-painted sign to identify the crop for newbie gardeners: on this particular day, a class of second-graders. Nora Saks, a 26-year-old dressed in tan Carhartt overalls and a worn baseball cap, instructs them to take their imaginary cameras and go examine the vegetables before gathering at the stone table to taste what they’ve grown.

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.

At 22, Budde has a degree in environmental science and has spent summers on farms in Washington state and Virginia. In Maine, she is working at four schools in three towns. Mondays and Thursdays, for example, she is restoring a greenhouse in nearby Augusta, where she will grow food for culinary students at a vocational high school. On Wednesday mornings, she helps lead the Bowdoinham Food Freaks program, which teaches gardening skills and cooking to elementary school students.

Bowdoinham is a progressive rural town with more than its share of young organic farmers. The Food Freaks garden reflects that. There are the usual tomatoes, peppers and herbs. But the junior gardeners also grow rhubarb, asparagus, squash and Jerusalem artichokes. Whether they like to eat them is another matter. The week I visited, Budde’s students had made pizza crust from summer squash, flour and eggs and topped it with tomatoes and cheese, a creation that apparently didn’t quite measure up to the pizza pockets on offer in the cafeteria that day. According to a survey, 44 percent of the students who tasted it said they didn’t like it.

“I think school food-service directors are interested in healthy and local food, but the question is, how do they pull their heads up from the grind and make that change?” says Kathy Savoie, a nutrition educator at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, who is overseeing Budde’s work. “The FoodCorps program puts someone on the ground, right there to help with these efforts that are so close to being successful.”

Maine’s intemperate climate doesn’t always help the cause. There was rain and hail on the September day that member Jane Spencer had hoped to take a class of first-graders to the garden at Edna Libby Elementary in Standish. Instead, the slender 26-year-old sat with the pupils indoors and explained how seeds develop into seedlings, then flowers and fruits.

Like Budde, Spencer has an impressive agricultural résumé. She worked on farms in Hawaii and Connecticut and on fishing boats in Alaska. If the weather cooperates, she says, she hopes to work with the students outdoors until the end of October, when the snow comes. In winter, she’ll teach in a greenhouse and help to establish connections between local farmers and school cafeterias.

“You watch the things they bring for lunch, and you want them to eat something good,” said first-grade teacher Linda Wilson, who has taught for 31 years and is herself an avid gardener. “Education is so prescribed these days. We don’t have the time or the resources. If someone comes in and is prepared to do it, it’s wonderful.”

Because FoodCorps is part of the AmeriCorps network, about a third of its budget comes from federal dollars. The rest comes from private foundations such as W.K. Kellogg Foundation. (Full disclosure: I am a fellow with a nonprofit advocacy organization that also receives funding from Kellogg.)

What happens next depends on the experiences of this first FoodCorps class. Each member is required to assess his or her impact, such as the number of children and parents engaged, the total dollar amounts spent on local food, and, through surveys, the change in attitude toward healthful food among students.

Anecdotally, the future looks promising.

“I never thought about eating healthy before,” said Ifrah Abdi, a 16-year-old at Portland High School who is also a member of the high school culinary corps that Saks is teaching to garden and cook. “The fact is, you can grow good food and cook it, and it’s better than going to the supermarket. Not everyone, especially immigrant families, can afford organic food. This makes a real difference.”

Black, a former Food section staffer, is a Brooklyn-based food writer who is working on a book about one West Virginia city’s struggle to change the way it eats. Follow her on Twitter: @jane_black.

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