Curt Ellis discusses an innovative national service program called FoodCorps, and the important role young people play in transforming the food system from the ground up.
What is FoodCorps?

Curt Ellis: FoodCorps is a nonprofit organization I started less than a year ago with six collaborators from across the food movement. What we’re trying to do is match a problem——the awful epidemic of childhood obesity——with a powerful solution: the wave of young leaders who are eager to get their hands dirty in careers in food and agriculture.

The centerpiece of our work is an AmeriCorps public service program——essentially a Teach for America for school food. Our first class of 50 twenty-somethings is in the field now, spending a year of paid public service in high-obesity, limited-resource schools. They’re teaching kids about healthy food and where it comes from, giving them hands-on opportunities to grow and cook and taste fresh vegetables through school gardens, and helping school cafeterias shift their supply chains to local farmers. They’re an incredibly inspiring group of people, and they’re making schools something they haven’t been in a long time: places where healthy food is celebrated and served.

What needs does the program address, and how does it do so?

Curt Ellis: We’re facing dramatic rates of childhood obesity in America, and as a society we’ve finally come to accept that the time has come to do something about it. The fact that one in three children is expected to develop Type II diabetes is unacceptable. We have to put this generation of children on a better track, and that work that begins in the place where 31 million kids learn about food and eat more than half of their daily calories: in school.

There are wonderful organizations trying to fill this need in communities around the country, but improving school food, tending school gardens, and teaching kids about where food comes from is time-consuming work. We heard over and over from these groups that it’s a shortage of human resources that’s holding them back. So we started FoodCorps to fill that gap.

We recruit talented young people (1,229 candidates applied for our first class of 50), and we place our service members under the direction of local organizations that know their community’s needs best. That’s one of the strengths we pride ourselves on at FoodCorps: we’re not trying to create a whole new national infrastructure, but work with existing organizations and give them the capacity to ramp up their work.

What sort of career training does FoodCorps provide for young people?

Curt Ellis: FoodCorps invests heavily in professional development for our service members. Our hope is that these young people will leave our program equipped to take on even larger roles in education, health, farming, food, and ecology. We kick off our service program with trainings on farming, nutrition education, procurement, and community organizing. This year we had a daylong workshop on farming and agriculture at Growing Power, Will Allen’s urban farm in Milwaukee.

Our service members also receive ongoing training throughout their term of service, and we connect them with mentors: national leaders in the areas of food, agriculture, and health that match their interests, so they can receive career guidance from people who are at the top of their field. Of course the most valuable career training Service Members receive is their actual service, which gives them direct, on-the-ground experience in education, agriculture, and community building.

What essential role do young people play in building a healthy, sustainable food system?

Curt Ellis: It’s this generation of young leaders——from our service members, who are mostly recent college grads, up through those of us in our thirties——that has been leading the movement to make food a priority again. We’ve been advocating for our schools to offer courses in agricultural history and food politics, and those schools have responded. We’ve pushed through our Real Food Challenge groups and our Slow Food on Campus chapters to change what our college cafeterias serve, and the food service directors have responded. Now we’re getting our hands in the ground as farmers and educators and policymakers and entrepreneurs, working to make sure every American has access to healthy, green, just food. It’s an inspiring process to watch, and to be a part of.

What’s your vision for the future of FoodCorps?

Curt Ellis: Our vision for FoodCorps is to grow. We’re building a national network that harnesses the incredible energy of young people to improve children’s health and make sure our schools offer healthy food environments to the kids they feed and educate. Our goal is to grow our service member force from 50 people working across 10 states, to over 1,000 working across all 50 states and DC, and we want to get there by the end of the decade. We know the passion from young leaders is there, and we know the need is there——now we just need to raise the money to make it happen.

What does the food movement mean to you?

Curt Ellis: The food movement acknowledges that food–like water and shelter and not much else——is fundamental. It challenges us to treat that fundamental thing, the food we eat, with respect. It asks that we nourish our bodies with food that is grown in an environmentally sustainable way. In a socially just way. In a way that builds culture and community. In a way that’s affordable and accessible to all. And it holds out a huge and hopeful possibility: that if we can solve all these challenges in the world of food, then we’ll know that we can solve them anywhere.

About Curt Ellis

Curt Ellis is executive director of FoodCorps and founder of the Brooklyn-based documentary and advocacy company Wicked Delicate. He co-created the documentaries King Corn and Big River, and served as a Food and Community Fellow with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. In April 2009, he convened the group’s first meeting to discuss a national AmeriCorps initiative related to “Good Food,” which was the became the seed for FoodCorps.

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