How to Get Kids to Eat Their Vegetables in the Lunch Room

Curt EllisFrom the Emerson Collective

When Curt Ellis was a senior in college, he released a flock of baffled sheep onto a campus quad.

A history major studying American agriculture, Ellis and a group of friends wanted to raise awareness about the dire state of contemporary farming in New England—there were struggling family farms just down the road from campus, while the dining hall trucked in food from three thousand miles away. Ellis tracked down a local shepherd and brought her to campus for a demonstration.

“I think social movements work best if they‘re actually a social experience,” Ellis says. “So we thought, ‘Let’s do some hijinx.’”

Sure, students were dodging sheep droppings on their way to class for the next few days, but Ellis’ campus-advocacy group blossomed, and the university started making changes. Today, there’s a vegetable garden in the middle of campus, and incoming freshmen have a chance to attend a five-day orientation on a local organic farm.

Ellis, a school-food entrepreneur and Emerson Collective Dial Fellow, grew up in Oregon and traces this passion for food back to his family garden, where his parents and five siblings grew tomatoes, marionberries, and zucchini. “Food is love, and food is culture, and food connects us to each other and to the land we depend on,” Ellis says. “Those were things I had the daily benefit of experiencing around my family’s garden and dinner table and kitchen when I was growing up.” …

In 2009, Ellis co-founded FoodCorps to provide young people with a platform to impact the U.S. food system—starting with schools. The nonprofit, supported by AmeriCorps and philanthropic funding, places trained FoodCorps service members in elementary schools across the country where they work to strengthen the connection between students and healthy food. At FoodCorps schools, 50% or more of students qualify for free and reduced-priced lunches—an indicator of a community that may be struggling to make ends meet.

For one year, FoodCorps service members, many of whom grew up in the communities where they serve, teach classes about healthy eating and nutrition; plant onsite school gardens with students to teach them about agriculture and cooking; and run taste tests with students in the cafeteria to promote the healthy foods that are on the salad bar or lunch line.

Over the last ten years, FoodCorps has embedded nearly a thousand FoodCorps service members in schools, reaching upward of 375 schools this year. Today, FoodCorps service members are working across 18 states and Washington, D.C.; in places as varied as Flint, Michigan; rural Iowa; and the Navajo Nation.