Tasting pumpkin hummus, putting up fencing around a high school garden and singing songs about fruits and vegetables – these are just a few of the daily activities of a FoodCorps North Carolina Service Member. FoodCorps is a national non-profit that partners with state organizations to place emerging leaders in local communities to nurture a child’s relationship with healthy food. Service members dedicate a year or more of service in low-resource schools to build and tend gardens, teach hands-on food and nutrition education and build pathways with local farms to source to school cafeterias. This three-pillar approach has shown that kids are more willing to try and taste fruits and vegetables and can positively impact their lives.
North Carolina 4-H and the Center for Environmental Farming systems through the Department of Horticultural Science have joined together to host FoodCorps North Carolina and work collaboratively with local partner organizations to craft possibilities where fruits and vegetables are celebrated and eaten with fervor. Local partners include Gaston County Cooperative Extension, Guilford Cooperative Extension, Cherokee Choices and Cherokee Central Schools, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Food Policy Council, Good Food Sandhills, Warren County Cooperative Extension, Dillard Academy, Wilson County Schools and Feast Down East. Each local organization stewards service members in building opportunities for young people to actively engage in growing, cooking and eating fruits and vegetables. In Warren County, Cooperative Extension, Working Landscapes and Warren County Public Schools cooperated to assist in GAP certifying a Warren County farm to produce cabbage, chopped and bagged the cabbage in Warrenton and the school system purchased and served the cabbage in the cafeteria. Students passed out samples and encouraged their peers to taste it. Today, there are thriving school gardens across the county, garden and cooking 4-H clubs and even the high school has a GAP certified garden.
FoodCorps Service Members (FCMs) have been working to establish or expand school garden programs. As studies have demonstrated, engaging children in the process of growing food increases their dietary preference for and consumption of fresh vegetables (Health Promotion Practice, 2009). FCMs break ground on new gardens, help incorporate garden programs into curricula, and engage parents, community volunteers and kids in the active outdoor play of growing fruits and vegetables. Though garden harvests are rarely sufficient to supply most school cafeterias, even taste-tests conducted with garden produce have been shown to help children build positive relationships with fresh food. Whether revitalizing an outdoor classroom space in Wayne County or building a cob oven for cooking garden produce in Moore County, FCMs use school gardens as gateways that connect classroom lessons on nutrition to real-world physical activity and healthy eating in the schoolyard.
FCMs have increased children’s access to and information about healthy food, offering them regular servings of the nutritious meals they’ve now studied and grown. Through holistic “Farm to School” programming, FCMs help transform public school cafeterias into educational environments where healthy food choices are promoted. They also facilitate relationships between child nutrition directors and local farmers who can supply nutritious ingredients at scale. Activities in this area are diverse: crafting displays that teach kids to identify and taste the winter greens in their salad bar; developing institutional recipes for sliced apples and spiced yogurt to replace fries and ketchup; or establishing an online message board that links child nutrition directors to farmers looking to distribute their produce. Research demonstrates that kids participating in Farm to School programs often consume one more serving of healthy fruits and vegetables each day (Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition, 2008).
Through this three-pronged approach, FCMs working in resource-strapped public school systems will be the primary drivers of well-designed and well-researched interventions aimed at increasing the health of students at risk for lifetimes of diet-related illness and disease. This holistic approach addresses both the childhood obesity epidemic and the growing trend of childhood hunger with the same mechanism–targeted investment in the human resource of AmeriCorps volunteers. These passionate, committed, engaged, and selfless leaders will envelop the students they serve in a wrap-around environment of health and wellness through strategies identified across health and human services agencies as critical in reversing the well-marked course toward diabetes and obesity.
FoodCorps members provide the boots on the ground, the motivation and passion to be physically present and consistently able to work in limited-resource schools, changing the school food environment. Since the start of the FoodCorps North Carolina program in late August 2011, FoodCorps Service Members have already reached nearly 30,000 youth, enlisted over 1,325 volunteers, built and revitalized over 28 gardens and revitalized 34. Beyond health and wellness benefits, school gardens will increase youth’s understanding of plant and soil concepts, foster wonder and curiosity; develop problem-solving skills, including critical thinking and creativity. Garden programs build leadership skills, including self-confidence, communication and cooperation. School Gardens can become spaces that empower youth to become future food system leaders.