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Will FoodCorps transform the American school lunch?

Will FoodCorps transform the American school lunch?
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.

What will it take to change kids' eating habits?

NBJ: So what’s the smart approach? How do you promote the change?

CE: Our service members are doing three primary things. First, they try to give children knowledge of what healthy food is and where it comes from. The typical elementary-age child in America gets less than 3.5 hours of nutrition education in a full year of schooling. We try to increase both the quantity of nutrition education the kids are getting, and increase the quality of it too by making it more hands-on and more engaging than the food pyramids we all grew up with.

The second thing our service members strive to do is give children opportunities to engage with healthy food in a school garden. They grow food in gardens to get kids willing to try fruits and vegetables they might otherwise push off their plates, and also to engage parents and community members in a life of food in the school. The third thing our service members do is try to change what is actually being served in school cafeterias, through farm-to-school programs and partnerships with chefs and farmers to get healthy, high-quality ingredients into school lunch.

NBJ: That last one sounds difficult.

CE: It is, but there’s lots of low-hanging fruit. Take the way we market food to kids in school cafeterias. There’s a lot of good work to do, just putting the pizza in the back under dim light and putting the apples up front in a nice clean bowl.

NBJ: How crucial is the garden?

CE: If you just have a garden in the abstract and it’s not connected to anything else, that garden won’t accomplish much. We see gardens as gateways, both for children to try new foods and for parents and community members toget involved and excited about food in school. But once you get kids willing to eat healthy food, they need access to it and that means that we have to change what is being served in the cafeteria. Once we’ve gotten the parents involved, that’s a good start, but we need to give them somewhere to place their energy.

We see school gardens as these very powerful entry points into the work. But in the abstract, gardens alone don’t do enough to fix the very systemic problem here, which is kids not understanding what healthy food actually is. They don’t have hands-on opportunities to get excited about it, and then they don’t have regular daily access to it in school cafeterias, the very place where 31 million kids get more than half of their daily calories.

NBJ: Where are the biggest obstacles right now? How fast can you scale this?

CE: While we talk about childhood obesity and diet-related disease and environmental challenges—all of these massive problems—in interviews like this, the work we do on the ground is all about positivity. It’s about health and the opportunity to grow fresh fruits and vegetables, about cooking delicious food and feeling great. It’s so easy in looking at our food landscape these days to paint a picture that is all about doom and gloom. We try very hard to do just the opposite.

You’re right, though. In terms of the limits we face, the most important one is just our ability to bring this idea to scale. We have 50 service members on the ground in 10 states currently, and by 2020 we would like 1,000 service members in all 50 states, serving more than 1 million children annually. That’s a financial and logistical challenge, but one we’re excited to tackle.

NBJ: The food debate in America tends to get so political. How do you reconcile some of those tensions between, say, organic food producers and biotech companies using GMOs to feed the world?

CE: I’ll speak to that last point. The challenge of feeding seven billion people is a big one, and we need a generation of smart people who care about food involved in solving that problem. The other half of what FoodCorps tries to do—in addition to giving children knowledge, engagement and access to healthy food in school—is to train a generation of leaders in the fields of food, agriculture, science and public health. I believe strongly that our service members are just the kind of brilliant young leaders we need tackling that big problem of feeding the world sustainably.

We hear from people across the food industry that want to help children gain access to healthy, high-quality food. That is a value that is highly visible among the natural food brands, but I think, at the end of the day, it’s a value that is shared by all food companies. Finding the best ways to feed the next generation in a responsible, cost-efficient, sustainable and healthful way is a difficult challenge. We’re all working at our own scales to do that work with integrity.

NBJ: This seems like such a simple, smart idea.

CE: We have incredible models in the Peace Corps, Teach for America and Habitat for Humanity. We have an unbelievable network of local partners who have been doing this work and achieving significant, measurable, positive change for decades. We’re giving them the boots they need on the ground to scale up, and they’re giving us the know-how and practical skills for how to find success in their communities. Together, I think we really can change the face of school food in America.

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