by Lucy Weiss*
With a background in Food Studies, an interest in food law and policy, and a belief in the power of education, I was searching for ways to combine my passions when a professor recommended FoodCorps to me. FoodCorps is an AmeriCorps service fellowship program focusing on student access to healthy food in schools that partners with local community organizations and school districts around the U.S. Service members participate in three primary activities: providing hands-on lessons, encouraging healthy school meals, and promoting a schoolwide culture of health. For example, members teach gardening and cooking and facilitate taste tests of new and different foods, although the COVID-19 pandemic limits some of what we are able to do. A number of service members also work with the cafeteria staff and school districts to ensure healthy food options are available and promoted at school lunches. Each state and site partner have different needs and therefore service varies from position to position.
My experience in FoodCorps thus far is not representative of all service members, but provides an example of what service can look like. I began my FoodCorps fellowship in August with an online national training series and transitioned into in person site-specific training and then full-time teaching. My site partner, the Garden School Foundation, is a nonprofit that operates eight school gardens in Title I elementary schools around Los Angeles County. Garden School Foundation creates and revises its own curriculum, which ranges from an October pumpkin dissection lesson with 1st graders to a 4th grade unit on composting. The curriculum aligns with Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), the newly adopted national framework for science education. NGSS shifts the focus of science learning from the rote memorization of facts, questions with only one right answer, and textbook learning to an emphasis on students observing and investigating their surroundings and explaining phenomena through systems thinking and modeling.
In my role as a garden educator, I teach K-5 garden classes and maintain the school garden–weeding, planting seasonal crops, and turning the compost. We are hoping to start cooking classes this spring although they are currently postponed due to the pandemic. Last year, FoodCorps service members, along with others from Garden School Foundation began hosting a free farmer’s market.
It is important to note that COVID-19 has had enormous impacts on students and families. While students are enthusiastic about being back in the garden after months of remote learning, it is also important to consider the education gap that now faces educators. As the pandemic continues around us, students are finally back in school and re-learning how to actually be students. But by many approximations, many students are around two years below grade level. In addition to exploring plant parts with students, I’m also helping to teach students reading and writing. The pandemic also exacerbated food insecurity. According to Feeding America, before the pandemic, food insecurity was at its lowest point since the 1990s, but COVID-19 completely upended that. The website notes that many people most impacted by the pandemic were food insecure or at risk of food insecurity before COVID-19, and are facing greater hardship since COVID-19. FoodCorps members along with Garden School Foundation partnered with a food distribution non-profit FoodForward and began distributing food from school gardens. This year, we have continued hosting the farmer’s market at 24th Street Elementary School, which involves picking up produce from FoodForward’s distribution headquarters, bringing it to 24th Street Elementary School and setting up the produce on a long table. We hand out bags and community members choose produce, completely free of charge. While this started because of the pandemic, it also functions to mitigate both hunger and food waste.
FoodCorps provides important support to the communities it serves. While everyone is adjusting to returning to in-person learning, the garden, more than ever before, is a space of joy and exploration where students learn outside and contribute to growing food for their community.
*Lucy Weiss was a summer research assistant with the Resnick Center. She has a B.A. from Middlebury College where she majored in Religion, focusing on the intersections of food, gender, and religion. She is interested in a career in food policy, specifically ensuring equal access to nutritious food for all.