FoodCorps is one of several efforts to give children healthy foods

June 19, 2012

A year has passed since Prince Charles, speaking at a Washington Post Live conference on the Future of Food, challenged the assumptions of our day “for the sake of the younger generation and for the integrity of Nature herself.”

What has happened in the year since? What are we actually doing, on and in the ground, to give the next generation opportunities to grow the healthful future envisioned by the Prince of Wales? There are encouraging signs, from the White House to our schools to our kitchen tables.

Betti Wiggins, executive director of Detroit Public Schools, better known as the “Head Lunch Lady,” feeds breakfast to 45,000 kids and lunch to 55,000 kids every school day. Wiggins recently announced that 30 percent of school system food purchases in the coming year would be of local produce. DPS is building 45 school gardens and providing summer meals to students. Wiggins says that if students have a chance to grow the food, they are more likely to eat it.

First lady Michelle Obama has used her political and literal muscle to promote healthy eating. Through her “Let’s Move” program and a new book, “American Grown,” about the importance of gardens, the first lady has spotlighted childhood obesity and smarter food choices.

As honorary chair of the Partnership for a Healthier America, she is leading efforts to bring healthy, affordable food to 10 million Americans who live in food deserts over the next five years and to increase healthy options on kids’ menus at restaurants and hotels that serve more than 400 million meals a year.

Wiggins is putting vegetables on kids’ trays in Detroit, and Obama is encouraging us to plant them nationwide.

FoodCorps is teaching kids how to love them.

FoodCorps, of which I am co-founder, is a nonprofit that addresses childhood obesity and food insecurity by working with schools to create a healthier food environment. Our service members plant school gardens, bring healthy food into the cafeteria and teach students about nutrition in the garden and lunchroom. We send these leaders into communities with limited resources to teach healthy eating — as a member of the AmeriCorps Service Network, we are sort of a Peace Corps for school food.

Since Prince Charles stressed the need to “embrace the willingness of all aspects of society — the public, private, and NGO sectors, large corporations and small organizations — to work together” a year ago, FoodCorps, a public-private partnership, launched its first class into service in 200 schools. In 10 months, we have taught more than 48,000 children, built or restored more than 425 school and community gardens, recruited 1,500 new community volunteers and harvested more than 9,000 pounds of garden-fresh produce that was donated to food-insecure children and families.

Beyond the statistics, we have been inspired by the stories our service members share with us — of salsa taste-tests, broccoli biology lessons, and local food and farmer days in school lunchrooms.

We have seen a seismic swell of interest among young people. Last year, more than 1,000 young Americans applied to serve in the 50 FoodCorps positions in 10 states. Their motivations are both philosophical and personal.

Allison Marshall, 25, serving in nine schools in North Carolina, experienced food insecurity firsthand growing up in a tumultuous household, switching schools often and relying on food stamps and free school lunches.

“I lacked self-esteem and positive role models and received very little guidance on how to live healthfully and take care of my body,” she said. “I felt embarrassed to go through the free lunch line in school, so I often didn’t eat lunch.”

As a result, along with focusing on eating healthy, she seeks to serve as a positive role model. She wants students to understand the connections between their bodies, their health and their environment — and to bring that newfound understanding home to their families.

She said she knew she was making a difference when Gypsy, an 8-year-old student, said to her: “Ms. Allison, I have been thinking about all the things you teach us about, and I decided that I will eat healthier from now on. Because it’s good for me, good for Mother Earth, it’s fun, and it will make my mama happy.”

Eschmeyer is co-founder and director of policy and partnerships of FoodCorps.
She is also a vegetable farmer in rural Ohio.

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