TFT Interview: Debra Eschmeyer of FoodCorps

TFT Interview: Debra Eschmeyer of FoodCorpsIn every social justice movement, there’s a tension between the grassroots advocates who want immediate solutions, and elected officials, who inevitably compromise the movement’s ideals. The food justice movement is no different. But 31-year old Debra Eschmeyer has spent her career proving that you can (and must) marry idealism to political pragmatism. After growing up on a dairy farm in Ohio, Eschmeyer went to work on agriculture policy issues at the National Family Farm Coalition in D.C. Later, she was the spokesperson for the National Farm to School Network, which gets food from local farms into school cafeterias. At the same time, she served as a Kellogg Food & Society Fellow, a prestigious two-year fellowship that supports leaders who are working to create a healthier food system. As a Kellogg Fellow, Eschmeyer and several of her colleagues—including Curt Ellis (producer and director of King Corn) and Cecily Upton (a former staffer at Slow Food USA)—began cooking up an exciting new project: a national service organization that teaches public school students about food and nutrition.

Called FoodCorps, the program is a scalable national response to the epidemics of childhood obesity and diet-related disease. Building on the AmeriCorps model, FoodCorps trains young adults to educate K-12 students who live in high-obesity, low-income communities. FoodCorps members will help students plant edible gardens, show them how to prepare healthy, simple meals, and drive it all home with lessons on nutrition.

Eschmeyer squeezed in an interview with me during a rare free moment between running FoodCorps, tending a 13-acre organic vegetable farm with her husband in New Knoxville, Ohio, and traveling to the National Farm to School Network’s annual meeting in Portland, Oregon. She spoke to me about FoodCorps, how the Obama administration is doing when it comes to child nutrition, and why young people are more likely to play a video game about farming than actually get their hands dirty.

FoodCorps sounds like a Peace Corps for school food, where members get paid a stipend to do one year of service with a nonprofit. Tell me more.

At FoodCorps, we focus on three pillars of work: Building school gardens, so kids have experiential knowledge; nutrition education; and local food procurement. Research by the Centers for Disease Control has demonstrated that engaging children in growing food leads to healthy eating habits that last a lifetime. Research also shows that on average, children participating in farm-to-school programs consume one more serving of fruits and vegetables a day than kids who don’t.

When I worked for the National Farm to School Network, I received thousands of comments from around the country saying, “I love the idea of a farm-to-school program, but how do I get started in my community’s school? Our budgets are tight and we just don’t have the sweat equity and labor to pull it off.” Now I have an answer: FoodCorps! One of the most game-changing aspects of FoodCorps is that we’re dedicating resources to high-obesity, limited-resource communities—schools where over 50% of the students are on free or reduced lunches. We’ll be in communities like the Tohono O’odham nation in Arizona, where Type II diabetes was once unheard of, but where children as young as six are being diagnosed with the disease.

How many locations will FoodCorps be in starting this fall?

We have amazing partners that we work with in 10 states: Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Oregon. Selecting host sites was an extremely competitive process. We had 108 organizations from 39 states and the District of Columbia apply, within a relatively short window. I think this shows the maturity of the movement. (See here for the complete list.)

And how many FoodCorps members are there?

We’ll have 50 members in 2011. The idea is to start with a strong cadre of 50 at the 10 host sites and then grow, so that in a decade we can have 1,000 members in all 50 states. We received over 1,230 applications for this year’s team.

That’s a lot of applicants for just 50 spots.

I know! We’re officially more competitive than Harvard or Teach for America. The applications were above and beyond awe-inspiring and brilliant—and also a fascinating glimpse of what has inspired the next generation. Back when Michael Pollan published the Omnivore’s Dilemma, we had conversations that it was the Silent Spring of the food movement. And lo and behold, the number of FoodCorps applications that quoted Pollan was incredible. We have such a self-empowered and educated generation—they want to not just vote with their forks but vote with their whole being through service. They were all so motivated and passionate and all had personal experiences that validated why they believe so much in our vision. I’ve never felt more confident about the future of our country when it comes to reversing childhood obesity.


Who funds FoodCorps?

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Corporation for National and Community Service (AmeriCorps), the Woodcock Foundation, the Claneil Foundation, the Wallace Genetic Foundation, and anonymous private donors.

Typically, there’s a lot of red tape that gets in the way of schools serving produce from their own gardens in the cafeteria. How does FoodCorps get around that?

In most states, regulations don’t directly address school gardens, so you end up having to figure out how to meet each state’s concerns. We’ve been working with Tufts graduate students who’ve developed a template school garden policy for our 10 states so the food safety and regulatory concerns have been documented. But schools in our program will also buy from local farmers.

For those who are getting push-back from their school district, I recommend reading “Fresh, Healthy, and Safe Food: Best Practices for Using Produce from School Gardens,” and then contacting your state’s Department of Health. Be prepared to cite the federal memo that allows serving food from the school garden. If they say you can’t do it, ask them to point you to the specific part of state code that says so. There’s a good chance schools can meet the standards if they know what they are up against and are already following the guidelines in the food safety brochure.

Michelle Obama has done a lot to advocate for backyard gardens both at home and at school. What did you think of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Bill (the bill that funds the National School Lunch Program) that her husband signed into law?

I’m actually very happy with the end results of the bill. If you had asked me that question three years ago, I wouldn’t have said the same thing.

The bill needed to be passed and I was delighted that we could get the funding increase for school lunches, considering the budget climate that we’re in now. We were able to increase the reimbursement funding by six cents per lunch—and improve nutrition standards. And now the Secretary of Agriculture can set standards for all food served on school premises. There’s mandatory funding for farm-to-school programs. We’ve been fighting for that for six years! Those were substantial wins.

When I volunteered for New York City’s Wellness in the Schools, a bunch of us went to Capitol Hill to ask our senators and representatives to push for 70 cents more per child. I couldn’t help but see six cents per child as a big disappointment.

“The perfect can be the enemy of the good,” became my mantra over the past couple of years. We got as good as we could get in this political and fiscal climate. And we have to soldier on. If that bill hadn’t passed last year, we wouldn’t have gotten even the six-cent increase.

And you need the advocates—the people who say we need an extra 70 cents per lunch. But in the end, you need to come together. We’re making decisions now that are going to affect people 20 years down the road. Every edging forth is important.

How do you think the Obama Administration is doing with food and agriculture policy overall?

They’re doing as well as I expected. On certain issues the Obamas have been amazing. The Let’s Move! campaign has been brilliant. Michelle Obama is obviously a great spokesperson—getting people active, having fun. (Have you seen the Beyoncé video?) I’m very grateful for the energy she’s putting towards improving the health of the next generation.

This administration has been great with efforts such as Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food and the Childhood Obesity Taskforce These things are really transformative.

Regarding farm policy, there could be a lot of improvements. Congress is looking to trim any and all fat, so we’re going to have to protect what we have now. It’ll be interesting to see how the USDA works within that environment.

One of the gains of the last Farm Bill was an office of Advocacy and Outreach at the USDA. And they have a Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program—that’s something we’ve been working on for a decade. But if program funds are cut, then we go back to square one.

What was your response to that article in the Atlantic last year by Caitlin Flanagan, in which she argued that edible schoolyards are depriving our children of a “real” education?

My initial response was, “Really? This is what you’re spending your time on?” But her role was provocateur. And as it happens, I think she gave us a gift. A whole bunch of us came together and wrote letters—novels basically—about all the benefits of school gardens. It helped us think more critically about various facets of our program. In the end, we came together with some amazing stories, talking points, and new friendships.

You know how you talk to your best friend about the work you do and you don’t have to defend it or explain it? If you have these conversations with someone who you don’t agree with, you become stronger. We explain ourselves better after such conversations.

The next farm bill is around the corner. What are the top three items you would like to see change?

It’s a $307 billion bill! It’s very heavy—there is so much that could be tackled in it.

Instead of focusing on the detailed items I would change—there are so many that it would be difficult to focus on three—I would like to focus on no-cost solutions.

• Get an insider guide to farm policy out there to the general public that puts us all on the same page. Each of the many groups that comprise the food movement has a different agenda. But what are the things we can all be on the same page about?

• Develop a realistic agenda. In the end, these are the lofty goals that we want to achieve, but here are the things we know we can achieve in the 2012 Farm Bill.

• Ensure that the voices that are being heard are the grassroots and the farmers—especially beginning farmers. They all bring legitimacy to the cause. We love journalists, chefs, and nonprofits—that’s what makes our food movement go ’round. But we need to make sure that the people who are actually farming every day, who will be impacted the most by these programs, have a voice in this conversation.

I get the sense from talking to you that the so-called food justice movement is growing and gaining mainstream support.

Brian Walsh recently wrote an article in Time Magazine about how quickly the food movement has become a measurable force in American society—and how it may eventually eclipse the environmental movement. However, he also pointed out that while the Sierra Club has 1.3 million members nationwide, Slow Food USA (the food movement’s most dynamic and visible group) only has 20,000 members. (Author’s Note: Since Walsh’s article was published in February, Slow Food USA’s membership has grown to 24,000.) So we still have a long way to go, but the food movement is slowly and steadily building. (Sign up for Slow Food here.)

My question is: why are there so many people on FarmVille and yet we can’t get those same people interested in farming? I became addicted to FarmVille when I was in DC, but as a dairy farmer’s daughter, I was perturbed by the chocolate milk coming out of a brown cow! And you never slaughtered your pigs, you just petted them for truffles. Such a great opportunity for real farm education missed.

What’s your definition of food justice?

I was an editor of Food Justice (the new book by Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshi) so I spent several years thinking about the definition. Food justice seeks to ensure that the benefits and risks of where, what, and how food is grown, produced, transported, distributed, accessed and eaten are shared fairly. It represents a transformation of the current food system, including but not limited to eliminating disparities and inequities.

Hannah Wallace writes about food justice, integrative medicine, and travel. She is a frequent contributor to Whole Living (formerly Body + Soul), Portland Monthly, and T: Travel, and her articles and more


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