If you think about school broadly, not just a way to teach reading, writing and arithmetic, but as a way to prepare people for life, healthy food wisdom is one of the most important bodies of knowledge students can carry with them.
Consider that diseases related to poor diet diminish the lives of millions of Americans, and the result is creating tremendously expensive challenges—and some say an uncertain future—for our healthcare system. Here’s some powerful proof: One in three of our nation’s children are on track to develop diabetes in their lifetime, and for kids of color, it’s one in two; and for the first time in our nation’s history, today’s generation is projected to have a shorter lifespan than their parents. FoodCorps, a school-based program designed to teach lifelong healthy eating skills, is on the frontline of turning that trend around, and Groundwork is a longtime host of FoodCorps service members.
FoodCorps serves schools in which 50% of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, with the aim of establishing a healthy food culture throughout the school community: in the classrooms, cafeteria, extra-curricular and even at home.
Building a culture of healthy food requires inserting food knowledge at many different points in a child’s school day. Service members work with students to plant, tend and harvest gardens and greenhouses. They teach lessons in classrooms. They work with cafeteria staff to bring healthy food options to the menu, invite local farmers to present in class for “meet the farmer” days, and organize pop-up farmers markets on evenings of school open house. School staff have also worked with FoodCorps service members to update the school wellness policy, formalizing the importance of using whole, locally grown foods where possible.
In northern Michigan, Groundwork has hosted FoodCorps service members since the service was founded in 2011, and this year we were able to double the number of service members on our Petoskey-based team, managed by our office leader there, Jen Schaap. “Double” in this case means going from one to two, which may sound modest, but the expansion could impact the lives of hundreds of school children and their families in the Tip of the Mitt.
Groundwork’s FoodCorps service members Janie Noah and Hope Heideman, both of whom began their service terms this fall, serve two schools each. In recent years, our solo service members worked with Pellston and Boyne Falls Public Schools. This year, by adding a second person to the team, we are able to begin programming in East Jordan and Alanson Public Schools.
In addition to doubling the Petoskey team and number of schools it serves this year, the FoodCorps program is in the midst of other exciting transitions and challenges as well. Boyne Falls Public Schools is in its fifth year of FoodCorps programming, and FoodCorps policies encourage schools to “graduate” after about five years. Like any important transition, it’s an exciting and delicate moment: What will it take to ensure the culture of healthy food is sustained without a FoodCorps service member?
Equally exciting transitions are of course underway as FoodCorps begins first-year programming at Alanson and East Jordan Public Schools—made especially challenging as schools shift safety protocols in response to COVID.
“Even in a pandemic, we are not giving up on healthy school meals and food and garden education,” Schaap says. During COVID, service members are working hard to be as helpful as possible to the classroom teachers. They can give a teacher a break by teaching a class using, say, a recipe to discuss fractions. They can teach a writing class, helping kids write an essay about a favorite holiday food. They can teach a nutrition class, focused on a “Harvest of the Month” vegetable. “FoodCorps is super flexible and can be a break from a chaotic year to let someone come in and do some of this work for our teachers who are being pushed to the limits to make education work this year,” Schaap says.
And over break, service members will help parents, too. They’ll send links to fun recipes that kids and parents can cook together, or offer up games or easy science projects that are fun to do but also convey knowledge about healthy food. “This is a perfect kind of learning for at home during COVID,” Schaap says.
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