Georgia Organics’ Farm to School Summit Keynote Speaker Debra Eschmeyer is the Co-Founder and Director of Parterships and Policy of FoodCorps and an organic fruit and vegetable farmer.
Eschmeyer graciously agreed to answer a few questions about her work and the critical need for farm to school programs.
Georgia Organics – You grew up on a Midwestern dairy farm. Lots of kids grow up on farms but don’t become food advocates. How did you end up on that path?
Stumbling on the boulders in a planned path brought me to where I am today. For example, my husband and I were preparing to ship out for our Peace Corps assignment as agriculture volunteers in Ecuador. My dear husband was losing double-digit poundage comparable to the Biggest Loser, when he had no weight to lose. In short, a quick blood sugar reading of 283 closed the Peace Corps door and opened the door to life with Type I Diabetes.
When he was first diagnosed, we ate our meals like our life depended on it. In his case, it did — and still does. It was a dramatic change for a 190-pound, 6′ 4″ former college athlete. For months I cataloged every morsel that he ate in excruciating detail, noting the grams of carbohydrates so we could calculate what his failing pancreas could handle, i.e. two slices of whole wheat bread (22g) + garden veggie burger (5) + avocado (2) + 1/2 cup steamed green beans (5g) + side salad (8) + handful of grapes (15g) + milk (6.5) = 63.5 grams.
For a couple that loves eating, turning the best part of the day into rations and ratios accompanied by nit-picky nagging, “You shouldn’t eat that much bread” or “Don’t you dare pick up that cookie!” was not enjoyable, to say the least. But every time he raised a sugar-laced sweet to his mouth, all I saw was an amputated foot … or a heart attack, stroke, kidney failure, blindness. Food became a necessary evil at that point.
But he and I didn’t want to live that way and we realized there was no need to live in fear of food.
Food is joy. Food is community. Food is health. Food is part of the solution.
And via various winding paths working on farm policy in DC to co-founding FoodCorps with a fabulous group of young social entrepreneurs, my path led me to where my food education began: back on the farm.
My rural roots in Shelby County, Ohio helped shape my understanding and appreciation of agriculture, specifically the need to nurture this generation and the next to restore the connections between food, community, land and place. Partly because I grew up on a dairy farm, I was ingrained at a very young age for an appreciation of all the hard work that goes into growing food. I want all children to know who their farmer is, just like knowing your doctor. Not only because it’s valuable to put a face to who grows your food, but in showcasing farmers as public health leaders in that food is the gateway to health.
With so many issues to choose from in our current food system, why did you decide to focus on school food as the best place to affect change?
Our educational system is supposed to be a pathway to enabling a healthy society. Schools—their classrooms, cafeterias, and playgrounds—are the logical frontlines in our nation’s response to childhood obesity. More than 32 million children eat school food five days a week, receiving more than half their daily calories from school food programs. As the Institute of Medicine recommended in Accelerating Progress in Obesity Prevention, we need to “strengthen schools as the heart of health. What we feed our children, and what we teach them about food, affects how they learn, how they grow and how long they will live. Considering that when last studied, only 2% of schoolchildren met the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the nation’s school food environments have significant need for improvement.
You’ve returned to Ohio to farm. How does being a farmer inform your work on school food?
(Laughing) Farming teaches you to be humble because Mother Nature is in charge of your schedule.
Farming fruits and vegetables for a living makes you fully understand (and empathize with) the barriers to entry for farmers who ideally would love for their delicious, nutritious produce to land on their neighbor’s trays at lunch, and how important education is for the consumer to fully enjoy what you grow.
What are the biggest challenges for feeding kids good food?
Patience. There’s so much we can do to continue improving what we serve our kids in school from procurement to policy, but patience is sometimes the greatest challenge we face. The first time you hand a child an apple instead of a cookie, or a baked sweet potato wedge instead of a French fry, he is bound to be disappointed. Similarly, the first time you give a child a math textbook, he may come home frustrated with fractions. But we don’t give up on our kids with math, and we shouldn’t give up on them with healthy food. We simply can’t afford to.
And giving them access to healthy, tasty food will only be part of the real solution. If we care about growing a healthy generation of kids, we have to think and look long-term, and we have to take a broader view than just what’s on the tray when instituting policy and programs. Because learning Lunch, like learning Math, takes patience.
How does FoodCorps address that challenge?
First, FoodCorps takes the long view with a community-based approach. Part of the AmeriCorps service network, FoodCorps service members are embedded with local partner organizations from which they serve in high-need K-12 schools. It takes a community.
Second, if we want kids to be excited to find something healthier than fast food in their school cafeteria, we have to do more than change what’s on the lunch tray. We have to give them opportunities to learn and get their hands dirty in the growing process. It’s our 3-ingredient recipe for success: Knowledge, Engagement, Access.
To help children develop a positive attitude toward healthy food, we need to think more like marketers. We need to engage kids in growing broccoli, chopping tomatoes for salsa, and learning to try new foods and love them (even the green ones). Working with farmers, chefs, teachers, parents and professionals on the lunch line, we need to address the entire school food environment, and transform the cafeteria into a place where healthy choices aren’t just served, but celebrated, too.
Third, research and evaluation — measure your impact and analyze to improve! For example, 50 service members selected from more than 1,000 applicants for the 2011-2012 school year reached more than 51,000 children with hands-on teaching activities. They built or revitalized 382 school gardens. Working with farmers and foodservice personnel, they facilitated 218 tastings of healthy, local food; introduced 86 new items onto school menus; developed nearly 40 new, healthy recipes that cafeterias then served at scale; and recruited more than 1,800 community volunteers who contributed more than 12,000 hours of service to help institutionalize healthy eating activities. Since August 2012, the second class of 80 FoodCorps service members has offered over 342 cafeteria taste tests, helped to introduce 163 new ingredients and 77 new dishes onto the school menus, and helped to bring nearly 14,000 pounds of fresh produce into the cafeteria.
Fourth, share your story. Every week we are inundated with stories like Rachel’s, from Arkansas: “After a salad tasting, one of my students told me that he used to think Sonic made the best food in town, but now he says that garden food is the best.” Or Robyn, from Michigan, who reported that she knows she’s “making an impact when a student voraciously eats green beans at the end of the lesson, when he insisted he would never touch one at the beginning.” Parents in in Mississippi report that their kids come home and ask for the vegetables they tried that day at school.
Tell us about ways you’ve made and are making FoodCorps sustainable.
FoodCorps brings national coordination, large-scale visibility, and federal and philanthropic partnerships to the challenge of transforming school food. Our work succeeds because we invest in community relationships and human capital: we select high capacity local partners to lead our corps on the ground, and we train our service members to become trusted agents of community engagement. Simultaneously, we amplify their local work to a national scale, garnering public and policy support. Through both broad and deep civic engagement, FoodCorps lays the groundwork for long-term sustainability. The result is a school food environment that is durably changed for the better.
In its first year, FoodCorps received 108 applications for only 10 host sites. What are your thoughts on the overwhelming response from communities all over the country?
The time is ripe. Communities are requesting service members while thousands are clamoring to serve. Let’s get it done.
What is the hope for FoodCorps alumni?
I get goose bumps just thinking about it! We strive for our FoodCorps alumni to be public health leaders, teachers, farmers, and all-around innovators in the food system helping create a healthy, fair, affordable food system that is available to all people in this country. And it’s already happening!
In August 2012, we graduated our first class of service members. More than half of them decided to return for a second year of service with FoodCorps. The others have gone on to the next steps in vibrant careers. For example, after serving in Decorah, Iowa, Leah Chapman moved to Florida, to work for ARAMARK Corporation. She accepted a position as Sustainability Manager for Gator Dining Services at the University of Florida and is the South Region Sustainability Steward for ARAMARK Higher Education. How much room do you have, I can go on and on! After serving in Arizona with Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA), Stephanie Lip was hired to join the TOCA staff as the Food Services Development Director, analyzing existing school food systems to implement scratch-cooking meal programs.
Oh, and secretly, I expect a future President will be a FoodCorps alum, and I hope all of them are future gardeners and farmers.
What are your hopes for the farm to school movement in the next few years?
Institionalizing the Farm to School program into the school food environment so it’s no longer a program, but just the way it is! Our success will be determined by whether a thriving environment for kids to have access to and education about healthy food takes root. The vision is that in 10, 20, 30, 40 years the United States is going to be looked upon by other countries, and they will look at a FoodCorps school and say, “That is how you raise a healthy nation.”