It’s a kale free-for-all in the second-grade classroom of Boulder Elementary School. Seven students ages 8 to 12 lean elbows onto a semi-circle table where FoodCorps leader Camille McGoven directs a taste-test cooking class with kale, rainbow chard, and bok choi as the contestants. The students cut the greens using plastic cake-cutting knives, then pile them into a red bowl that’s being attacked like a platter of nachos at a Super Bowl party.
The taste-test begins as the students trying each green raw. Miraculously, there’s not a single, “Ewww, gross” among the crew. That’s not allowed in the Two-Bite Club. One of Camille’s rules is that students can’t make disparaging comments about food. If they don’t like something on the first try, they say, “I don’t like it, but I’ll try it next time.” Or if the student is feeling fancy, she can say, “This not to my preference.” Camille, in her two years at the school as the FoodCorps Fellow, has used subtle tactics to instill a new attitude toward healthy food, for students and staff.
Twice a week Camille leads cooking class “taste tests” as part of the after-school program. She leads in-school cooking lessons on simple, healthy, low-cost snacks complete with recipes that students can take home with them. Earlier today, Camille’s second-grade class split up to make cherry salsa using fruit from the nearby Flathead Valley. The four groups cut cilantro and green onions. They squeezed lemons and pitted cherries. The produce went into a bowl and became a salsa to be sampled with corn tortilla chips while Camille explained the nutritional value of Montana cherries.
Students eat these lessons and sayings and health tips up as fast as they eat the kale chips. Parents of Boulder students are shocked by their once-picky children’s willingness to try new food or their enthusiasm to make dishes with broccoli or kale or melons rather than eat candy (what Camille and the kids now call “sometimes food”). Many kids end up telling their parents about the importance of eating whole foods.
The kids know that to be part of the Two-Bite Club they must be willing to take two bites of something. It seems like a such a small step – just one more bite than before there was a Two-Bite Club – but it forces an open-mindedness to trying new things. Camille’s enthusiasm for new food and healthier options pervades Boulder Elementary School, which is exactly what the Food Corps program she signed up for intends to do across the country.
FoodCorps is an up-and-coming force in the food security movement and its roots can be traced back to Montana. In 2006, the National Center for Appropriate Technology partnered with Grow Montana, a broad-based coalition with a mission to promote local economic development and universal access to Montana’s local food production, processing, and distribution. The two groups created Montana Food Corps, which trained Montana Campus Compact AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers to establish farm-to-cafeteria programs in schools across the state.
In the first year, FoodCorps helped Salish Kootenai College increase its local food purchases (from seven tribal reservations) from 0% to 10%. The six original FoodCorps institutions in Montana have kept close to $3 million within the local ranch and farm community. Program director Chrissy McMullan devised a plan to scale-up the operation. Eventually, people outside Montana started to see the possibilities of a FoodCorps service program that could send the farm-to-cafeteria message and methodology into schools around the country.
The National FoodCorps idea took root in a conference room in 2009, the same day that President Obama signed into law the Kennedy Serve America Act. Curt Ellis, co-producer of the documentary film “King Corn,” was there along with other leaders in the food security world. Suddenly, the federal government had tasked AmericaCorps to address childhood obesity.
“We looked at the great models out there already doing national service work using VISTA/AmeriCorps members,” says Ellis. “We looked at models like Chrissie McMullan’s FoodCorps project in Montana. And others in Vermont, Iowa, and elsewhere.”
The newly formed group, led by Ellis, with Chrissie as a board member, ran an eighteen-month public planning process with leaders from around the country. They formed a relatively simple approach. Modestly paid members dedicate a year, sometimes more, to living in and stewarding schools in three key areas: Knowledge, Engagement, and Access. This means teaching nutrition, showing fresh foods to students via gardens, and helping the students and the schools find better ways to access healthy, local food in the cafeterias and in their homes. In 2011 FoodCorps launched in ten states with fifty core members. Now there are one-hundred-eighty core members in seventeen states.
Boulder, MT sits in a remote cradle of western Montana, almost directly between Helena and Butte. Ranchlands make up most of the valley bottom outside of town. Main Street is wide and lined with old Ford and Chevy pick-ups and modest, 1990s-era sedans. There are a few bars, pizza and sub shops, and a couple cafes. The L&P is the grocery store and it has a decent selection of produce: lettuce, spinach, broccoli, carrots. Camille picked up the fancier chard and kale and bok choi items in Helena. Boulder could not be considered a food desert.
But inside the school, well over half of the students are on free/reduced lunch benefits. So most of the town’s children eat breakfast and lunch five days a week, nine months a year in the school cafeteria. As in many school districts, the school provides over half of a child’s nutritional intake. That’s a giant responsibility.
One of FoodCorps’ central missions is to improve the school lunch offerings. It’s not a simple matter of replacing chicken nuggets with black-bean-and-kale tacos. The food service directors at Boulder, as with many school systems, were accustomed to ready-to-bake frozen foods that went into the oven and onto the kids’ plates. Then federal regulations shifted Nutrition Standards for school food in 2012. Among other things, the new law required more legumes, called for a reduction in sodium over ten years, and prohibited trans fats. The changes led to a lot of anxiety in school kitchens.Bringing in fresh, healthier, from-scratch menu items looked like a lot of extra work when first introduced.
The FoodCorps leader who preceded Camille ran into road-blocks in that regard. The food service director was reluctant to change and little progress was made. The stumbling relationship between school staff and volunteer marks an obvious drawback to the FoodCorps approach. Any program that essentially parachutes outside volunteers into a community for a temporary time periods runs the risk of that person not connecting with the local norms. The outsider needs a deft touch to bring fresh ideas from “outside.” Camille has that touch and her just-try-it attitude had the same effect on the food service staff as it does on the students.
“The biggest thing in changing school food is the buy-in from the school,” says Camille. “Principal Maria Pace was on board and we just kept emphasizing the bottom line behind any food changes: that we’re here to help the kids be healthy. Simple as that.”
Camille began the taste-tests as a way to make a fun, game-show like introduction to fresh, whole foods, but also as a buy-in for the students.
“I wanted to give them a voice in the lunchroom changes,” she says. “We moved slowly, but they came to realize that, to some degree, their voice matters.”
“One of the hardest menu changes has been finding ways to meet the legume requirement through dishes that the student’s will eat,” she says. “We did a lot of bean taste tests and many of them were rejected. But hummus went over well, so we’re able to use that in a lot of dishes.”
Montana farmers grow a lot of lentils and a recent subsidy for pulse grain farmers (the lentil family) means the crop will continue to be a large part of the state’s yield. So groups have been experimenting with a lentil burger patty for institutional menus. (The food processing facility of the Lake County CDC has been at the backbone of this effort – see their Community Food Profile in this collection.) The lentil patty was a giant fail at Boulder and other school districts.
“I still hear about the lentil patty,” Camille says. “But we’re working on a lentil crumble combined with local beets. It’s getting some positive feedback from students and we’re hoping to get it into tacos and spaghetti sauces soon.”
This is Camille’s second, but last year. She will be sorely missed at Boulder Elementary. Principal Maria says she thinks they’ll qualify for another FoodCorps member next year. But if not? Could they share the tasks that Camille took on – cooking classes, after-school taste-tests, nutrition guidance and marketing?
“I don’t know,” she says. “In an ideal world, I’d have the budget to hire a part-time staffer for that role, but I don’t know if I will. It’d be tricky to spread Camille’s work around the existing staff.”
And that’s the rub with projects like FoodCorps here and elsewhere, as it is with many programs that bring outsiders in to shepherd deep changes to an almost institutionalized lean toward convenience. Successful change and progress toward healthy food is a full-time job and must be adopted into the community. Relying on an outside force for long-term change is tricky because in all likelihood that outside force will one day leave. Knowledge and capacity must be built within the community so they can own their own change in the long run.
“This is inherently messy work,” says Ellis, now FoodCorps’ Executive Director. “You want to find a magic bullet to change this one thing – unhealthy school lunches. The reality is you have to change everything. You’ve got to have a wrap-around school environment that kids grow up in. Some parts of the country or a specific school might have a great school garden, but terrible food in the cafeteria. Or vice versa – great food and no garden, so kids are throwing it away because they don’t have the connection to the food from the garden. That’s why we focus on all three aspects: Knowledge, Engagement, and Access.”
Across the state, FoodCorps got its second wind with a three-year USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) grant. The newly named “FoodCorps for Rural Montana” began a rigorous evaluation of its performance in bringing Montana food into schools of its 13 Montana towns. Some numbers have recently come out attesting to the work of Knowledge-Engagement-Access approach:
- In year two, FoodCorps members provided direct, hands-on nutrition education to more than 8,000 students (~10% of the students who participate in Montana school lunches)
- In the first year, $34,254 of locally produced Montana foods went to school cafeterias. In the second year, that number increased to $81,944.
- FoodCorps students and community volunteers broke ground on over 12,000 acres of new garden land
- Over the two year study, more than 500 (97 in the first year, up to 432 in second year) community volunteers took part in FoodCorps-related activities like garden work, processing vegetables, and organizing farm visits