The most steadfast habits are built from a young age, and adopting a well-balanced, healthy diet is one of the top indicators for living a long life. One organization helping students in the US develop a more nutrient-rich diet is FoodCorps, a non-profit that works with communities to connect kids to healthy food in school. Founded in 2010, FoodCorps impact just a decade after its inception is profound: 73 percent of the schools that FoodCorps has worked with in the past ten years reported measurably healthier food environments by the end of the school year. Students with FoodCorps programs at their school ate up to three times the amount of fruits and vegetables per day as those who did not, and in 2019 alone, FoodCorps programs impacted over 167,000 students nationwide. In a country where childhood obesity continues to rise, the importance of curriculums that teach healthy eating cannot be understated.
We spoke with Erica Curry, Director of Programs at FoodCorps to learn how the organization has impacted communities around the country, and how we can encourage healthy eating in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, where schools are shut down and healthy eating learning takes place at home.
Q: Habits are a huge factor in teaching young kids how to eat healthily, and habits are often started at home. How does your mission to “connect kids to healthy food in school” translate to eating at home?
A: Kitchens and gardens are classrooms, too! They are spaces to bring academic concepts to life and change attitudes toward healthy foods along the way. Research shows that students who participate in farm to school, cooking clubs, gardening, and other nutrition education programs are not only more knowledgeable about fruits and vegetables, but they also eat more fruits and vegetables. We see the evidence in the schools that we serve across the country. Recently a parent shared that Brussels sprouts are now a dinnertime favorite after her daughter tried them during our taste test in the school cafeteria. Was it the taste test that changed her mind? Or was it the time her daughter spent planting seeds in the school garden? Or maybe it was the science lesson with a food educator in the classroom?
Education impacts how children perceive food and hands-on learning can extend beyond the classroom and be shaped by experiences both at home and at school. Also, food is a big part of cultural identity, and our lessons are adaptable for a family to explore personal history, traditions, and preferences. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution for how we eat and how we learn about food but our lessons can serve as a guide towards healthier eating.
Q: FoodCorps takes a hands-on approach when it comes to learning. Why does this build stronger connections with healthy food?
A: FoodCorps has an unofficial motto—try new things! It stems from a simple idea: the more a child tries something, whether it’s a food, a game, or a musical instrument, the more familiar it becomes. One study found that kids who try a vegetable that they initially don’t like will begin to like it more after 8 or 9 tries. That’s where hands-on learning can really make an impact by creating opportunities for a child to engage with food in different ways. Food education extends beyond the plate. It’s about teaching children to know what healthy food is, care where it comes from, and understand how it helps them thrive at school and in life.
Q: What kind of improvements have you seen in schools that have adopted FoodCorps?
A: All kids deserve access to healthy food at school. We are part of a growing movement of people who share this vision.
In the United States, there are 100,000 schools, where children normally spend at least a quarter of their day and consume as much as half of their daily calories. Across the country, school nutrition professionals are offering healthy school meals, sourcing food from local farms and suppliers, and partnering with educators to reinforce the connection between the cafeteria and classroom.
Food and nutrition education is directly connected to healthy school meals. A recent study found that kids ate up to three times as many fruits and vegetables in schools with more FoodCorps programming, compared to schools that received fewer hands-on lessons. Each year we see similar results, with about 75% of schools that FoodCorps serves adopting new tactics to build a school-wide culture of health by the academic year’s end.
Q: In light of the pandemic, while schools are closed, what are some other resources FoodCorps provides to help connect children with healthy eating?
A: The crisis has revealed a stark reality: school food is a social safety net that ensures kids learn and thrive in the classroom and in life. It has also underscored how school food is essential—and the people who serve school food are essential workers.
While the schools that we serve are closed, our mission has not changed. Our service members have quickly adapted to continue serving school communities in different ways. We are supporting school nutrition leaders with preparing and distributing emergency meals to kids and families. We are helping care for the school gardens so that they are vibrant and thriving when the students eventually return. We are supporting teachers and administrators with remote learning and lesson planning for the year ahead. Check out our Video Lessons by FoodCorps AmeriCorps Service Members for students in grades K-5. They meet Common Core State Standards or Next Generation Science Standards, and overall they’re an easily accessible resource for caregivers who are looking for creative ideas to engage kids in hands-on learning at home!
Q: What are some ways that parents who may be at home with their children during the pandemic can further their healthy learning?
A: Invite your children to help with the cooking—it’s a great way to learn together! What’s a new spin on an old family favorite recipe? Reading recipes with kids promotes literacy and inquiry skills—where might we find recipes together?
You can also taste new foods together to learn what you like. When you try foods with your child, you model the adventure of exploring flavor profiles. Does your family prefer bitter, sweet, spicy, sour or salty flavors? We recommend the Choose-Your-Own-Flavor-Popcorn to explore this topic. Want to dip your toe into fermentation? Check out Quick, Pickle That! Need a refresher on which foods give us energy, which helps us grow, and which helps us stay healthy? Check out Go, Grow, Glow.
Q: How can we give back to or support FoodCorps now that schools are closed for the year?
A: Thank you for asking! The pandemic has launched our nation’s largest emergency feeding effort in generations—with school communities on the front lines. When you donate to FoodCorps your gift helps us continue to meet the most urgent needs of our school partners while keeping up the fight to ensure our country’s policies and food systems work together to safeguard every child’s health and potential—now and when students return to school.
Q: How can we ensure more schools get FoodCorps programs?
A: We are creating a future in which all of our nation’s children know what healthy food is, care where it comes from, and eat it every day. To realize this vision, we must advocate for policies that shape our entire system—all 100,000 schools in the United States. This is where you come in because your voice makes a difference. Food and nutrition educators deliver hands-on lessons—like cooking, gardening, and taste tests—to steer kids toward making healthier food choices.
You can help bring food and nutrition educators to more schools! Ask your senators to co-sponsor the Food and Nutrition Education in Schools Act of 2020. When you speak up for policies that help schools nourish kids, everyone wins. Visit the FoodCorps Action Center to learn to take action and advocate for healthy school meals.