Sitting around a table at a regional sustainable agriculture conference, North Carolina’s FoodCorps service members exude youthful optimism. They are discussing what attracted them to FoodCorps – part of the AmeriCorps network of service programs – out of all the many options available to them. “I knew I wanted to do service,” says Eliza Hudson, who is in her second year of FoodCorps service in Guilford County, “and a lot of other programs didn’t have as much direct experience with kids. I wanted to be in classrooms, outdoor classrooms, sharing my passions with them.”
Leah Klaproth, a FoodCorps fellow who is in her third year of service, adds, “I feel more like a firestarter here. We’re getting things started in Title I schools where there is a real need for resources, and so much possibility in terms of what can be done [with school gardens and nutrition education].”
FoodCorps is a national program whose mission is to “give all youth an enduring relationship with healthy food.” Working in partnership with local communities and organizations, FoodCorps aims to change children’s attitudes and behaviors towards food through nutrition education, school garden engagement, and increasing access to healthy, local produce through local farm to cafeteria pathways.
CEFS and NC 4-H co-host FoodCorps in North Carolina, providing training and support to seven FoodCorps service members and one FoodCorps fellow in six sites throughout the state. FoodCorps intentionally directs its efforts toward Title I schools, defined in North Carolina as public schools with a student poverty rate of more than forty percent. In Guilford County, the program is in its third year, working in partnership with the Guilford County Cooperative Extension Service (CES) at nine High Point Title I elementary schools.
Guilford CES Horticulture Agent Karen Neill has been part of developing the FoodCorps program since the very beginning, and has personally seen its benefits: “Kids are engaged, test scores are up, kids have a much greater appreciation of where food comes from. They’ve learned life skills – they know how to improve and amend soils, they understand seasonality.”
Arguably, the most significant benefit is that the program impacts what kids are eating. Various research studies have shown that children are much more likely to try a new food if they have helped to grow it. And that is proving true in Guilford County, where monthly school cafeteria taste tests highlight foods the students are growing in their school gardens.
In the bustling school cafeteria at Oak Hill Elementary School in High Point, Extension Master Gardener volunteer Ken Meeks hands out little paper cups filled with broccoli florets baked in olive oil and parmesan cheese. An older gentleman with an affable manner, the kids perk up when he nears their table. “Who wants to try broccoli?” he calls out from behind his broccoli cart. Hands shoot up quickly. The broccoli, local and organic, was sourced from a farm about 30 miles away from the school.
One by one, the kids – who are encouraged, but not forced to try the foods – sample the broccoli. Some take little nibbles, wincing almost as if in pain; others chew slowly, pensively; still others gulp the pieces down practically whole and ask for seconds. All seem excited by what is taking place. The students receive stickers for trying the food, and as they leave the cafeteria they record their official “taste-test” opinion by affixing small colored dots to sections of posterboard that read “I loved it!”, “Only so-so”, etc.
“Kids are engaged, test scores are up, kids have a much greater appreciation of where food comes from. They’ve learned life skills – they know how to improve and amend soils, they understand seasonality.”
– Karen Neill, Guilford County Cooperative Extension Service Horticulture Agent
“The kids really enjoy [the taste tests],” says Julie Oxendine, the school’s cafeteria manager. “It starts in kindergarten – FoodCorps is here and encouraging [kids to try different foods]. By the time they’re in third and fourth grade, they already have the habit, and they’re not afraid to try new things.”
Beyond the significant on-the-ground impact that FoodCorps is having in schools, the program is also helping to advance the Farm-to-School movement generally across the state. The FoodCorps fellow devotes a portion of her time to supporting the growth of the Farm to School Coalition of North Carolina, a group that brings together numerous agencies and organizations in an effort to leverage the multiple Farm-to-School efforts in the state, and maximize policies and resources that enhance Farm-to-School work.
As the Oak Hill Elementary taste test winds down, outside the school a group of children is doing a garden-based activity. Led by FoodCorps service member Melissa Tingling, students are tending to raised beds of radishes, lettuces and other greens. Shrieking with excitement, they race over to one of the beds. “Hey, I found broccoli!” one of them yells. Another, gently holding a watering can, names the plants as he waters. “That’s cilantro, there’s kale….” Melissa calls them over to the radish bed and announces that they can harvest small bunches to take home and eat with their families. Hunched over the beds, their little hands dig out the radishes one by one, triumphantly holding them up for inspection. Happy faces shining, not one minds the dirt under their nails.
Top photo: JJ Richardson/CEFS