Paid a small stipend and aligned with partner organizations, the first crop of FoodCorps service volunteers kicked off a one-year term on August 15, 2011.
Tasked with seeding and harvesting schoolyard gardens from scratch, a total of 50 volunteers serve 139 schools with one goal in mind: to not only teach kids how to garden and eat nutrition-packed meals, but to also make a serious dent in the country’s childhood-obesity epidemic.
Many of the projects serve public schools where half or more of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunches. “We’re focused on communities that may not have had access to programs like this before,” explains Program Director Cecily Upton, a co-founder of FoodCorps along with Curt Ellis (co-creator of the film King Corn) and Debra Eschmeyer (former director of outreach and communications at National Farm to School Network).
When Upton’s childhood science teacher arranged for her class to farm on nearby land, it forever changed the way Upton viewed food. “It was a turning point for me to learn how food is grown,” she says.
While many schoolyard gardens are already in place, the problem has been keeping the momentum going, Upton says. A lot of times, one volunteer takes on the project for a season, but no one resumes it the following year. “If there isn’t someone to really shepherd the program, often times, the school garden may lay fallow. If you allow it to die and sit there unattended, it becomes a sore spot. People see an abandoned garden and think that nobody cares.”
By partnering with organizations located in the same state, these projects have a higher chance of succeeding.
When President Barack Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act two years ago, Upton and the other founders knew the timing was right to get FoodCorps off the ground. “There were thousands of young people out there looking for a job that would hold an entry point into a career in public health, education or the food system.” she says.
Within 10 years, FoodCorps aims to have 1,000 service volunteers out in the field. “We want to be the Teach for America of Slow Foods,” Upton says.
FoodCorps is funded by a three-year grant from AmeriCorps as well as financial support from private donors and W.K. Kellogg Foundation.