On the campus of Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Jenna Mobley starts a lesson on worms with an icebreaker. She asks all of her students to introduce themselves and their favorite vegetables.
Each student introduces themselves. Hannah loves beets, Richard loves peas.
But these aren’t 5th graders – the age group the lesson was created for. The students are adults, and they’ll soon be the teachers at schools around the country.
They are part of FoodCorps, a grantee program of AmeriCorps, that sends service members out into schools and communities to teach kids about food.
The weeklong training brought about 240 people from around the country to Portland, where they learned about gardening, nutrition and cooking in the classroom. Now they’ll head to service sites in 18 states for about a year.
“We’re filling a niche that there just isn’t somebody else able to do around bringing food and academics together,” said Zeke Smith, manager of programs for FoodCorps, which is primarily headquartered in Portland.
A FoodCorps experience may look different from one community to the next. A service member might be teaching lessons about worms in the classroom. Or in the cafeteria, hosting broccoli taste tests. Or hosting an after-school program in the garden, helping kids grow their own onions and cabbage.
But Smith said it’s about more than learning to cook or grow food.
“It’s also a different way for them to bring their community into the school and to think about the school as a community space,” Smith said.
That means talking about the culture associated with a food or cuisine, or about how it relates to students lives. For example, a training session on making spring rolls prompted conversation on where the dish originated.
In the weeklong training, FoodCorps members learned basic lessons around food and gardening. But for some, the training provided an opportunity to learn about more complex teaching concepts – like restorative justice and trauma-informed care.
“We want to make sure that we’re supporting our service members to integrate effectively into the school community that they’re going in,” Smith said. “That means knowing more than just content.”
Sessions on identity and community during the training further help students understand the communities they may serve in, Smith said.
Most of FoodCorps’ members are recent graduates, and experience teaching children is encouraged – but not required — to enroll.
Bend-based Tracy Ryan, age 60, is heading into her second year at FoodCorps. Other than experience as a parent volunteer, FoodCorps was her first time in a classroom setting.
“My passion is teaching kids and connecting kids about food,” Ryan said.
She works in the classroom and the garden at two elementary schools, and also spends time in the cafeteria, talking to students about healthy choices.
“The more that we can educate our children around food and the earlier that we do that, that can create a healthier society all the way around,” Ryan said.
FoodCorps serves at 10 sites across Oregon – from a Portland elementary school to a Lake County hospital system.
Some sites focus on gardening. Others use food education as a way to get students excited about math, science, and technology.
“What you’re learning about food in Umatilla should not be the same things you’re learning about food in Portland or Tillamook,” said Aaron Poplack, Oregon program manager for FoodCorps. “What we try to do is really understand what type of value we can bring a community.”
FoodCorps started about eight years ago with a focus on serving students that may not have access to food education.
“We want to be in schools that have 50% or higher free and reduced lunch population,” Smith said. “We want to be in schools that are both in rural communities and urban communities.”
The organization’s goal isn’t to have a FoodCorps member in every school in America.
Instead, the group is working on changing policy – from food education curriculum to what’s happening in the cafeteria. In Oregon, Foodcorps supported increased funding for the state’s Farm to School grant program and a statewide expansion of the federal reduced lunch program.
“We’re using the fact that we have people that are working in schools on a daily basis and their experience and their knowledge to really inform…what that policy change looks like at a state and federal level,” Smith said.