Mother Nature Network
By Tom Odor

A cookie or an apple? French fries or sweet potato wedges? Healthy eating choices may get easier for children in New Jersey, Hawaii and California this summer.

food corpsPending funding from AmeriCorps, FoodCorps hopes to add those three states to the 12 states where the group currently operates, giving it up to 130 service members in 15 states next school year. FoodCorps is a national nonprofit organization that is part of the AmeriCorps service network. It seeks to reduce the country’s childhood obesity epidemic by placing motivated leaders in limited-resource communities for a year of public service.

Once in place, service members connect kids to healthy food through education, by building and tending school gardens and by bringing nutritious food from local farms into school cafeterias. Service members are currently carrying out that mission in Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, North Carolina and Oregon. “We’d like to be in all 50 states by 2020, but growth is very much contingent upon being able to find funding and the right partners in each state,” said Jerusha Klemperer, FoodCorps communications director.

“Think of FoodCorps as a Peace Corps for food,” said Debra Eschmeyer, a dairy farmer’s daughter who co-founded FoodCorps in the fall of 2010. She serves as its director of Partnerships and Policy, and she won a James Beard Foundation Leadership Award in October 2011 for her work in several areas of school food reform, including her work with FoodCorps.

The efforts of FoodCorps and other groups to reverse the country’s childhood obesity epidemic by changing the dietary landscape for thousands of schoolchildren is part of a broad national movement called Farm to School or F2S. Those efforts are coming at a critical time.

America has an alarming number of children who are either obese and overweight or hungry — and at the same time, Eschmeyer told a Georgia Organics statewide summit in Atlanta last month. “FoodCorps addresses the root cause of both,” she said, “which is access to healthy food.”

A 2007-2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that about 17 percent, or 12.5 million children and adolescents aged 2-19 in the United States are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since 1980, obesity among children and adolescents has almost tripled, according to the survey.

There are significant racial and ethnic disparities in obesity among U.S. children and adolescents, the survey found. In 2007-2008, Hispanic boys, aged 2 to 19, were significantly more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic white boys, and non-Hispanic black girls were significantly more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic white girls.

The Farm to School movement is not directed by any single nonprofit organization or top-down government agency. Rather, Farm to School is a grassroots movement led by groups such as FoodCorps, state and federal agencies and individuals such as parents, educators and members of local gardening groups in communities across the country. Active in all 50 states, Farm to School programs seek to bring regionally produced foods into K-12 school cafeterias, involve children in hands-on learning through participation in school gardens, farm visits and culinary classes, integrate food-related education into the regular, standards-based classroom curriculum and support local and regional farmers.

The National Farm to School Network and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), through its Farm to School Program, support local efforts by providing a combination of free training, technical assistance, research and information services, policy support and grants. Another national group, School Food FOCUS, seeks to achieve many of the same goals in large, urban school districts.

Proponents of Farm to School initiatives see the movement as critical in liberating a generation of American children from diet-related diseases. One in three children born in the United States, for example, is on track to develop Type II diabetes because they are overweight, according to Food Corps. The country’s obesity epidemic discriminates against some children more than others. According to FoodCorps:
50 percent of children of color are expected to develop diabetes during their lifetimes. Children in the South suffer especially high rates of obesity.

Long-term complications from diabetes can include heart disease, strokes, blindness, kidney failure, which may require dialysis, and poor circulation of limbs, which can lead to amputations. The stomach-churning fear of facing these possibilities is something Eschmeyer is all-too familiar with.

She and her husband, Jeff, were preparing to ship out for a Peace Corps assignment as agriculture volunteers in Ecuador when he was diagnosed with late onset Type I diabetes. He was a former college athlete and was just 25 at the time.

They were thunderstruck and cancelled the trip in February 2004 because Jeff was medically disqualified from participating. To deal with his disease, Eschmeyer started preparing special meals and cataloging what her husband ate as if his life depended on it — which, in this case, it did. But, she soon learned that nit-picky nagging was not a solution.

“Food is joy. Food is community. Food is health. Food is part of the solution,” she said.

That “aha moment” set her on a path that led her back to her roots — the farm, where she thinks her food education began. She and Jeff now operate Harvest Sun Farm in Shelby County in Central Ohio a half mile down the road from the dairy farm where she grew up.

She believes it is farms like theirs that produce fruits and vegetables for supporters of Community Supported Agriculture programs (CSAs), farmers markets and groceries that are ground zero in the fight against childhood obesity. One of the battles she is fighting in that war is to create awareness that the nation’s farmers do much more than grow food. She wants the public to see them as public health leaders. The way Farm to School programs can help farmers do that, she believes, is to teach the nation’s 32 million schoolchildren that it is as important for them to know their farmer as it is to know their doctor.

Because children eat school food five days a week and receive more than half their daily calories from school food programs, Eschmeyer sees the nation’s schools as the frontline in the war on obesity. The biggest challenge Farm to School proponents face in winning that war, Eschmeyer thinks, is not food procurement or policy but patience. Only 2 percent of schoolchildren meet the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, she points out. We don’t give up on our kids with math if they become frustrated learning fractions, and we shouldn’t give up on them with changing unhealthy food habits to healthy food habits, she says.

How will she measure success? “When the Farm to School program takes root and is so ingrained into the school food environment that it’s no longer a program, but just the way it is,” she exclaims. Her vision is that in 10, 20, 30 or 40 years, other countries will look at the United States and see how FoodCorps schools and Farm to School programs have changed children’s diets and say, “That is how you raise a healthy nation.”

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