The first few weeks of school, we got to harvest vegetables from the garden to make the snacks. Not all of the kids were fans of the food we made together, but one girl ate everything, and then seconds and thirds. She would even eat the stems of the parsley and peel of the lemon I was planning to discard. And then one day I found out why. I came to her lunch period. “Miss Grace!,” she exclaimed and excitedly waved me over. I asked her what she was having for lunch. She pointed to two cookies inside the bag she had brought from home. “Is that it?” That was it. Now I understood. What used to give me delight now gave me anxiety.
I know that nearly 90 percent of the students at the 3 elementary schools I serve qualify for free or reduced price lunch, and thus are likely coming from food insecure families. However, these moments in which I can clearly see the face of hunger still have a great effect on me. Hunger is generally associated with people unable to obtain enough food, and these days, we know a nourishing meal is more than just the quantity of calories; it is about quality. Those two cookies may have had “enough” calories but did not contain the vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, fiber and other life-giving components that whole, unprocessed food contains.
As a FoodCorps service member, I help connect kids to real food to help them grow up healthy. I do this by engaging kids directly in growing vegetables in the school garden as well as making healthy snacks in classrooms and afterschool programs. I also work with teachers to have them lead these positive experiences, providing them with training and resources to better incorporate fruits and vegetables and garden activities into their classes.
Through these activities, kids not only eat real food, but learn skills to grow and prepare nutritious meals on their own. However, efforts to expand school gardens, prepare food, or increase access to local produce are a struggle in my schools. Parents cannot support farm to school opportunities because they work multiple low-paying jobs. Teachers must focus their instructional time on boosting test scores rather than offering food-based activities. Staff turnover is high, preventing continued, high levels of commitment to school gardens.
Though these fundamental issues are nearly impossible to tackle in a short-term position that does not allow political advocacy, my experience with FoodCorps has given me the support to one day become a leader in this field and make significant, lasting change. Service members have the opportunity to join Communities of Learning, Inquiry, and Practice to delve deeper into policy, community organizing, and topics of equity. At national trainings, we get to hear from food system leaders such as LaDonna Redmond and Deb Eschmeyer. We are encouraged to ask tough questions to our national staff, are given platform to our voices through media, and are involved in important changes to our organization and future efforts to foster equity, diversity, and inclusion. These experiences and opportunities for reflection, discussion, and growth strengthen our organization and its emerging leaders in tackling larger issues.
In my years of service, I have helped to nourish kids by increasing access to food that will feed their bodies and minds. But just as importantly, I have had direct connections with hungry kids and the struggles of the communities they come from. FoodCorps not only helps kids to grow up healthy but gives service members the experiences and tools to one day address larger systemic issues that result in hunger.
This essay was a runner up for the 2016 FoodCorps Victory Growers Award. The award, sponsored by C&S Wholesale Grocers, highlights that many children struggle with hunger and food insecurity, and that the food they receive at school is the most important meal they will get all day.