Across the country, young people have been getting into the “real food” act, from advocating for sustainable, ethical, local food on their college campuses to fighting for justice for farmworkers to ditching their Williamsburg apartments and becoming farmers.
In the past couple of years, we’ve also seen renewed focus on school gardens and early childhood nutrition — Michelle Obama has championed the cause, and Congress recently passed the “Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act 2010,” including funding for farm-to-school programs as well as boosting school lunch nutrition.
FoodCorps within AmeriCorps
Starting this year, AmeriCorps is going to bring these causes together, tapping into the energy of young real food advocates to get children eating and growing real food. If they get enough funding, this fall will launch the first wave of FoodCorps volunteers, up to 82 young people who will work with nonprofit organizations in ten states to improve food access for children and get kids and teens involved in growing their own food.
Officially “An AmeriCorps School Garden and Farm to School Program,” the long-term goal of the FoodCorps is to “increase the health and prosperity of vulnerable children, while investing in the next generation of farmers.”
According to their website, FoodCorps members will “build Farm to School supply chains, expand food system and nutrition education programs, and build and tend school food gardens.” The first year’s volunteers alone will invest 139,400 hours of work into improving childhood nutrition and getting kids excited about growing and eating good food.
The host sites, selected from 108 applicants, are working across the country:
- In Arkansas, several volunteers will work on the Delta Garden Study at Arkansas Children’s Hospital Research Institute, which is fighting childhood obesity by launching and sustaining gardens in Arkansas schools.
- In Arizona, the volunteer will work at the John Hopkins Center for American Indian Health, which aims to “work in partnership with American Indian and Alaskan Native communities to raise their health status, self-sufficiency and health leadership to the highest possible level.”
- In Iowa, the National Center for Appropriate Technology will place six volunteers in urban and rural public schools.
- The University of Maine Cooperative Extension will host volunteers working on school gardens and farm-to-school programs all over the state.
- In Massachusetts, my former employer The Food Project will put volunteers to work on multi-faceted programming, increasing children’s access to growing and eating real food.
- At Michigan‘s C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems at MSU, volunteers will work on farm-to-school programs, school gardens, and nutrition education programs in “high-needs schools and communities.”
- In Mississippi, volunteers will be hosted by the Jackson Roadmap to Health Equity Project, which is “trying to achieve health equity by ensuring that those who have been historically, economically, or otherwise unable to practice healthy behaviors…have a chance.”
- The University of New Mexico‘s office of Community Learning and Public Service will host volunteers to promote their mission of community-based learning and advocacy.
- In North Carolina, volunteers will be hosted by the Center for Environmental Farming Systems and at North Carolina 4-H, working on a range of youth gardening and farm-to-school projects.
- In Oregon, the Department of Agriculture will place five volunteers in schools to work on the Farm to School Program.
In the future, the FoodCorps hopes to expand into all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
While I’m very excited about the possibilities of the FoodCorps, I do have some slight concerns about the project. Most importantly, AmericCorps pays very little, and presumably this will also be the case with the FoodCorps; the members are meant to be volunteers, which I understand and appreciate. However, I worry that this will lead to a self-selecting group of applicants who fall on the more privileged side of the spectrum.
After all, a young person with crushing college debt, an illness or disability requiring expensive treatments, a child or parent to support, or just no safety net might have incredible skills that would greatly benefit the FoodCorps, but not be able to survive on the scanty stipend. Of course, there are many affluent and unencumbered young people who can afford to go a year making next to nothing who have amazing skills and knowledge to offer — but while these young people should definitely be included, I would hate to see the FoodCorps restricted to them alone.
Sustainable only for the rich?
This is particularly striking because the sustainable food movement has often been depicted as a movement driven by white, upper-middle-class folks. This isn’t really true — for instance, check out Natasha Bowens’ fabulous “Color of Food” series over at Grist — and it’s important that the FoodCorps reflect the true diversity of the movement and not the privileged perception. Looking through the projects selected to host FoodCorps volunteers, it is obvious that many (if not all) of them deeply value diversity and will seek out volunteers who can bring unique perspectives to their work — hopefully AmeriCorps is examining its rules and compensation policies to make sure they’re getting as wide a range of talented volunteers as possible.
The Food Corps has the potential to build a powerful network throughout the United States and to bring healthy, affordable, delicious food to children while teaching them about their connection with food. With the energy and dedication of young real food advocates and the zeitgeist around childhood nutrition, it will be exciting to see where the FoodCorps can go from here!
Photo of community gardeners was taken by ItzaFineDay and found on his flickr. It is reused with thanks under Creative Commons license.