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Will work for food? Try Food Corps

The problems with school food are well-established. There’s not enough money, not enough manpower and often not enough know-how to produce fresher, more healthful food. Now, a group of good-food advocates has a plan: Establish a national Food Corps to help to do the heavy lifting.

The team, led by the National Farm to School Network, has raised $215,000 in grants from the Kellogg Foundation and AmeriCorps to get its program off the ground. If successful, the Food Corps will take on volunteers starting in 2011 for one-year placements at schools across the country. The service members will help school food service directors source local food for cafeterias as well as develop healthful-eating curricula that might include school gardens, visits to farms and farmers markets for parents and students.

“One of the biggest issues with bringing fresh food in is that school food directors don’t have time to do it. We’ll put the manpower behind it,” said Debra Eschmeyer, marketing director for the National Farm to School Network and a member of the five-person Food Corps planning team. “We want this to be the Habitat for Humanity for school meals.”

The inspiration for the project was the passage of the 2009 Kennedy Serve America Act, which, among other things expanded the number of AmeriCorps positions from 75,000 to 250,000 by 2017. Creating a food project within the established service program seemed an ideal way to channel federal dollars to food reform, explained Curt Ellis, one of the founders of Food Corps and co-creator of the documentary "King Corn:" “It’s unbelievably hard to make change at the federal level. You do years of lobbying just to get money for that extra apple. By creating an AmeriCorps program, we can go to the back door into schools, where they really need the nutrition help, but we can get it there with federal dollars.”

The group’s model is Montana Food Corps. The three-year program, which ended in June 2009, placed AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers at local schools and colleges to develop farm-to-school programs. Coordinator Chrissie McMullen, who is now working on the national program, said the Montana corps offered lessons for volunteers and school administrators.

For example, McMullen said that one her first volunteers in Missoula couldn’t understand why school staff said it was too much work to wash and chop lettuce on site. So she offered to help -- and learned that chopping the hundreds of pounds of lettuce took the central kitchen’s staff the entire day.

“Lots of people come in to farm-to-school work thinking that they just need to persuade schools to change the way they operate and understand the value of local food. Or they think school food people are lazy and bureaucratic,” she said. “There are lessons in this program for people in the school system and also people who want to do the work. Ninety-nine percent of success is the how.”

The Food Corps team will host a planning summit in Detroit May 19 and 20 to bring together school food leaders, representatives from small farms and agribusiness, AmeriCorps service members and leaders of model state programs.

-- Jane Black

By Jane Black  |  April 19, 2010; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Sustainable Food  | Tags: Jane Black, school lunch  
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But there is so much more to actually getting that local food on kids' plates and getting them to actually eat it. You could deliver all the fresh, local produce in the world to D.C. Public Schools food service as currently configured and they wouldn't know what to do with it. They either don't have the equipment or the know-how to prepare palatable vegetable that kids will actually eat. In fact, the schools have already backed away from proposed federal standards that call for more vegetable servings because they claim it will just end up in the trash. And from my observations in the school cafeteria, they are absolutely correct: kids don't eat the vegetables. So there is still a huge disconnect between the farm to school concept and kids stomachs in a large setting such as the District of Columbia.

Posted by: euclidarms | April 19, 2010 2:45 PM | Report abuse

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