The following is a conversation between Curt Ellis, co-founder and CEO of FoodCorps, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: As the saying goes: “Everyone complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it.” That also holds true to a degree for the way our children eat. But this evening, we have someone who is doing something about that… a lot about it, as a matter of fact. He is Curt Ellis, the co-founder and CEO of FoodCorps. Good evening, Curt, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Curt: Thank you for having me.
The work of FoodCorps is about connecting kids to healthy food in school.
Denver: Tell us about FoodCorps and what you do.
Curt: FoodCorps exists because every child in the country deserves to have healthy food in their lives. That’s because healthy food is a building block for human potential that shapes how we learn, how we feel, how long we’re going to live. Yet, one in five kids in this country struggles with hunger. One in three is overweight or obese. And one in two kids of color is expected to develop type 2 diabetes during their lifetime. The work of FoodCorps is about connecting kids to healthy food in school. We ensure that children want to eat healthy food, and we make sure they do eat it when they show up in school. We do that work in 350 schools today across 18 states and use that impact we make directly to drive towards larger systemic change in policy and culture and the school food marketplace.
Denver: A key piece of your story, Curt, is around one acre of land in the heart of Iowa, which led to an award-winning film called King Corn. Share with us that story, if you would.
Curt: When I graduated from college, and most of my friends were moving to Wall Street or Silicon Valley, my best friend and I decided to move to Iowa, and we spent a year in rural Iowa growing and telling the story of one acre of fairly typical American corn, the most grown and most processed crop in the country. The reason we told that story was it gave us an opportunity to uncover how our nation’s food system fails us. And the reality is: we live in a time when food, this simple, fundamental thing, in fact is broken… in how we approach it. The environmental impacts of the way we produce most food in this country, the human health impacts of the food quality that most of us– particularly our low-income communities have access to– and the way that our food culture is falling apart in the fast food nation. That film was a chance to tell that story of how our nation’s food system is currently failing us. And for me, it was also a catalyst to put down the camera and begin focusing on how to fix those things I was busy complaining about.
Denver: And I was how stunned how pervasive corn is… in just about everything, isn’t it?
Curt: If you take the typical fast food meal and break it down to its component parts; the French fries are fried in corn oil and soy bean oil. Soda is high-fructose corn syrup. Hamburger is corn-fed. Even the paper box has a corn-based wax on the coating. By the time you’re done with it, you really are eating relatively low-quality food in that it is a mass-produced source of cheap calories that has been transformed into refined grains, sugars, and relatively low-quality protein.
Denver: Corn is a vegetable in name only, and that’s about it.
The actual organization began to take shape when you were watching President Obama on TV in a hotel room in San Jose. What did you hear? And what did you do?
Curt: I had been traveling around with our documentary film King Corn to college campuses around the country and showing the film. Everywhere I went, I was amazed by the number of young people who would show up and who shared my interest in food as this prism… that you peer into it, you see our nation’s challenges refracted– Human health and public health, racial justice, and social justice, environmental sustainability, American culture. Yet, these young people were incredibly passionate about food and had no professional outlet they could pursue to really get involved in improving our nation’s food system.
Here I was at a food conference in San Jose that was hosted by WK Kellogg Foundation. I was watching CNN in my hotel room having my morning coffee and saw on the TV screen that President Obama was signing this thing called the Kennedy Serve America Act into law. That legislation, which may be the last truly bipartisan piece of legislation we had in this country, channeled significant new resources to AmeriCorps and other national service efforts… that kind of domestic Peace Corps type of work….and challenged AmeriCorps to specifically address some of the nation’s most pressing challenges. And childhood obesity was one of those challenges. For me, that was a lightbulb moment of realizing: here was a potential pathway for young people– who I had met on these college campuses– to roll up their sleeves and get involved in transforming the way we approach food.
So, I went downstairs to the conference, grabbed the microphone and said, “Anyone who wants to figure out how we start an AmeriCorps for food, let’s go into the next room and do it.” Sixteen months later, FoodCorps was launching in the field with the first class of 50 full-time AmeriCorps members. We now have 225 full-time AmeriCorps, and they do incredible work. They’re really the frontline boots on the ground who do the work FoodCorps does, connecting kids to healthy food in school.
Denver: You touched on this a moment ago, Curt, but speak a little bit more about obesity. I think we all are pretty aware we’re too fat as a nation. What are the implications of that for American society moving forward?
Curt: There is a big study just released that showed that now obesity and diet-related disease is the number one cause of death in this country. Preventable death is now really about fixing the way we eat. The reality is, we spend $1.4 trillion a year as a country on the diet-related disease epidemic. $400 billion a year is the obvious stuff. It’s amputating the legs of diabetes patients. It’s installing stents into the arteries of heart disease patients. It’s the millions of Americans who are on statin drugs. But a trillion dollars a year is lost economic productivity, and that lost economic productivity, if you run it to ground, is a powerful number. It is the fact that children and adults who suffer from diet-related disease attain less education, are out sick more at work, progress less in their careers, leave the workforce earlier, and die younger. What I mean by those things is if you follow that trillion dollars a year back to its source, you find kids showing up in our nation’s classrooms more often poor than wealthy; more often black or brown than white, and those kids are starting down a path where they are not going to be able to fulfill their potential, and they’re not going to be able to live out their dreams.
Denver: Pretty insidious, that’s for sure.
While you believe that FoodCorps, in order to be successful, has to look different in every community to meet the particular needs of that locale, there are some universal strategies for connecting kids to food that work well everywhere. What are some of those?
Curt: FoodCorps, it takes a strongly evidence-based approach to how we do our work. The research is very clear. If you want to change one thing in America’s diet, it’s that we need to get people eating their vegetables. Fruit and vegetable consumption is happening at tragically low levels. About 2% of America’s children eat their recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables. And yet, getting kids to eat a diversified diet with a whole bunch of different fruits and vegetables of different colors, with different nutrients in them is the single best thing we can do to both prevent diet-related disease and get all the benefits of having good nutrition.
The most impactful thing by far is to introduce kids to new fruits and vegetables in an immersive and experiential kind of way.
Denver: Every parent out there knows what a challenge that is.
Curt: It’s absolutely a challenge, and there are known ways to overcome that challenge. The most impactful thing by far is to introduce kids to new fruits and vegetables in an immersive and experiential kind of way. So, when children have the chance to eat carrots out of a garden with the dirt still on, when they have the chance to smell the leaves of the tomato plant, when they have the chance to touch and cook and taste something that they themselves have had a hand in creating, they love it, and they try it.
It often takes a dozen tries for a child to actually learn to like and develop the palate to enjoy a new taste, a new fruit or vegetable in particular. So, the work of FoodCorps is about giving kids as many opportunities as possible to try new foods, and giving them as many in-depth experiences as possible having a hand in creating those new foods. So, we build several hundred school gardens a year. We support about 800 school gardens right now nationwide. We do our classroom lessons in a way where kids are always getting a chance to cook and taste something… not just having an authority figure point at a government poster on the wall. That’s how we approached nutrition education for a long time, whether it was the four food groups or the food pyramid. Now, the MyPlate. That lecturing approach to nutrition education is nowhere near as impactful as actually giving a kid a chance to fall in love with food by knowing it and growing it.
Denver: How do you deal with that fear of trying new things that kids have? You talked a little bit about tasting, but speak to that a little bit as to how you do it because that’s a big challenge I think we can all relate to.
Curt: Absolutely. In the nutrition science field, there is this big focus on the concept of neophobia, the fear of trying new things. Part one is kids need a chance to try a bite rather than a plateful in their first chance. So, we spend a lot of time doing taste tests, whether in a cafeteria setting where we’re introducing a new healthy food in the menu, in partnership with our food services partners. Or we are working in a classroom setting to give kids a chance to try something that they may have never seen before. A small bite really works at getting kids to then be comfortable to take a plateful.
Similarly, those hands-on learning experiences, where kids get a chance to get out into a school garden or do a little cooking project themselves, are incredibly powerful at getting kids to get over the fear of trying new things. That’s an area where we track our impact very closely. Each year, for every FoodCorps service member who is in the field, we do a pre/post assessment where we have a sample group of kids who we test at the beginning of the year to understand: what are their attitudes and preferences toward fruits and vegetables. We test again at the end of the year, and the vast majority of kids improved their preferences for fruits and vegetables over the course of a year of FoodCorps education.
Denver: Pretty significantly too. I know you worked with Tisch Center up at Teachers College in Columbia, and you’ve really been able to change that relationship that kids do have with fruits and vegetables.
Curt: Yeah, Columbia University Teachers College just did a study of FoodCorps schools across eight states. They found that in schools where that kind of hands-on learning approach to nutrition education is happening; to a high degree, kids are eating triple the fruits and vegetables in their school lunch compared to an early stage school.
Denver: Good work. Let us get beyond the individual kid in the classroom, and let’s go down to the school cafeteria if we can. By and large, what do think about the food that is generally being served in the school cafeterias of America in 2018?
Curt: It’s certainly not much different from how it was when I was a student… eating fried chicken patties in my school cafeteria and waffle-cut French fries in my school cafeteria shortly after Ronald Reagan had worked to get catsup determined a vegetable for purposes of the school meal program. The reality is that our nation’s school meal program has its origins in part in a desire to use up surplus agricultural products. And the corn conversation we had earlier in many ways is closely connected to the story of how school food came to look the way it does– which is, there’s been a throughline in the story of American school food, which has been about finding the products that we have a whole lot of and getting those eaten by somebody–quite often, our nation’s kids. And that has happened to the detriment of our nation’s kids.
At the same time, there is an incredible innovation going on in school cafeterias around the country, and so many stories of inspiration all over the place. Farm-to-school programs where schools are sourcing food from local farmers; scratch cooking is making a big comeback. And a whole bunch of cities around the country are putting kitchens back into schools and culling the fryolators out… the kind of heat and serve operations out. There’s a real push towards salad bars, even food being served in school cafeterias, some of which come from school gardens right outside the cafeteria door.
Denver: We’re really re-imagining what the school cafeteria could look like, and you’re in the forefront of that.
Curt: We are beginning to as a country. We are deeply grateful at FoodCorps for the partners who we have in school food service who are doing that good work day in and day out. Of course, there’s so much work to go. We just made a big step in our evolution as an organization by merging another organization into FoodCorps. That group has been for the last decade a leading player on changing the school food supply chain to get healthier, higher quality, more sustainably produced food into school meal programs at scale. And FoodCorps’ work has really been about building demand for healthy food in school… these AmeriCorps members who are teaching kids about healthy food and helping them fall in love with that.
Denver: Making those kids a customer.
Curt: You bet. And the combination of those two things changed, both by building demand for healthy food, and now changing the supply side of what kids actually have access to in school. That’s where real transformation can happen.
Denver: You’ve done simple things too like making healthy choices at the front of the line, as opposed to the end of the line, and little things like that can really make a difference.
Curt: There’s a lot of behavioral economic research that we have based our program design around that is about simple choice points that you can set up so that kids are encouraged towards smart choices in the cafeteria… and making sure that lunch time is long enough that kids stick around and eat their vegetables because they tend to eat the vegetables last; making sure that the cafeteria environment is not a chaotic place where there’s bullying and aggression and violence, and people blowing whistles in the corner to get kids to sit down and be quiet; and then instead it becomes a place of human connection and a place where food is unlocked, not only for the power it has to get nutritious calories into our bodies, but also for the power it has to bring people together and be the currency of human relationships; that helps us connect across lines of difference and come to know each other as whole people. There aren’t nearly enough opportunities for that kind of learning to happen in a school setting, and the cafeteria is one of the places where we really have a chance to not only raise kids who are well-nourished, but raise kids who are respectful and who are connected and who are compassionate.
Denver: Beyond the classroom, and beyond the garden, and even beyond the school cafeteria, you set out to create a culture of health in the schools which knows no borders. Tell us how you go about that work.
Curt: The research is clear that if you want to change behavior, you need to change knowledge. Kids need to know what healthy food is and be able to make a smart choice. You need to change attitudes. Kids have to have these kinds of immersive experiences and fall in love with eating healthy food. And you need to change their behaviors by giving them a chance to actually eat healthy food. One of the best ways to impact all three of those things is to take a holistic approach to what a child learns about food in school because our kids spend half their waking hours in a school setting. They often eat half their daily calories there between school lunches, school breakfast, school snacks. The opportunity to have a school food environment where messages of health that are mutually reinforcing echo off the halls is incredibly powerful.
So, FoodCorps works to do parent engagement around getting parents excited about healthy food in school and getting them to be volunteers and carry the school culture to the home. We do work with school teams, so we bring together a school principal, a food service director, an engaged science teacher who uses the school garden. We work with those folks to set goals together and make it a collective project to create a healthier school. All that stuff ends up with a school where nutrition education is not a small side project that happens in 3.4 hours a year– which is what the typical norm is in this country right now. It is instead a wrap-around experience that kids often don’t even know is going on around them.
Denver: Your FoodCorps members serve as role models and can really inspire just through their behavior and their leadership and their enthusiasm.
Curt: FoodCorps service members are typically recent college grads. We work whenever possible to recruit corps members who share backgrounds and life experiences with the kids we serve, and they are heroes for healthy eating and exercise to the kids they teach. It’s a very different thing to look at the old model of the authority figure pointing at the government poster on the wall to teach kids about good nutrition and compare that to the FoodCorps model where a passionate and dedicated young leader is engaging with kids in this kind of near-peer relationship. And instead of a poster, they’ve got a school garden where they’re out there with their sleeves rolled up and their hands in the dirt pulling a potato out. That really changes what is possible.
Denver: Speaking about your FoodCorps service members, you have written about alumni programs that, like FoodCorps, has people who go through this and move on, what organizations can do to make those alumni programs better and more effective? What are some of those recommendations, Curt?
Curt: FoodCorps serves about 350 schools right now through our direct service program, and we’re raising the funds we need to scale that work. And yet we recognize the scale of our direct service work in schools is never going to reach the size of the challenge we’re working on. It’s 100,000 schools in this country. So, FoodCorps is really focused on: what are the pathways to take what we’re doing in our direct service work and begin making much larger scale change? And it’s very clear to us that one of the first pathways that is out there for our work is the fact that each year, 225 or more FoodCorps service members go through this transformative experience for themselves, not only for the kids they serve. And those FoodCorps alumni graduate from our AmeriCorps program, and 90% of them go on to six directly-related careers at the intersection of education and equity and health.
So, if we can invest in the long-term leadership trajectories of those alumni, we have an incredible opportunity to transform the lives of all the people those alums are going to reach throughout their careers. So, for us, our alumni strategy has been about identifying the careers of greatest impact that our alumni are interested in pursuing, and then resourcing career ladders for those alumni to get on to and start moving quickly up. So, school food service directors have an incredible amount of influence over what kids eat in this country. You typically run the food service operation for an entire district.
Right now, the food service director for Fayetteville, Arkansas is a FoodCorps alum who served in our first class there. The food service director for North Monterey Unified School District in California is a FoodCorps alum who served with us in California. The opportunity to invest in the careers of those folks is powerful. So, FoodCorps each year now hosts a school food leadership institute where we bring together FoodCorps alumni who are interested in exploring careers as school food service leaders themselves. We connect them to some of the most interesting thinkers in that business. We do career coaching and resume development to get them on to that path, and we help provide job placement support to get them into positions where they can really grow fast.
Denver: Very smart. Tell us about your business model and some of your key supporters.
Curt: FoodCorps has a diversified revenue model. Private philanthropy is foundational to how we get our work done in the world. But we also leverage that private philanthropy with government investment, largely from AmeriCorps, which is a competitive federal grant making program that we’ve been very proud to partner with. And also investment from our school and community partners. It’s incredibly important for the folks at the ground level who are putting FoodCorps to work in their communities have skin in the game. So, we collect a program service fee from our school and community partners.
We collect an AmeriCorps investment which is leveraged then with this private philanthropy investment, and I also should point out that the investment that our AmeriCorps members make themselves is really significant. They are dedicating a year or two of their lives to working at a poverty level wage because they are so dedicated to connecting kids to healthy food, and I love the FoodCorps model in that it really calls on everybody involved to roll up their sleeves together and do this work as a team.
From a philanthropy standpoint, we have a philanthropic supporter base that is pretty evenly split between individual, foundation and corporate partners. We are very proud of the support we’ve attracted from the social venture funding world that does really deep diligence on the model you have in your building and the potential you have to really make a difference at scale. So, FoodCorps has benefited strongly from early stage investment from the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation and more recent investment from New Profit. FoodCorps also has some longstanding foundation partners who have been really critical to our success. The WK Kellogg Foundation incubated FoodCorps in its earliest days and made it possible for us to do a big public planning process that was deeply stakeholder-driven. So we really built this thing in a way that meets the needs of the folks that we seek to serve.
Denver: The Kellogg Foundation actually hosted that food conference that got you started. Tremendous debt of gratitude to them.
Curt: Absolutely, and then partners like the Walmart Foundation has been an amazing partner to us. The Michael & Susan Dell Foundation has been an amazing partner to us. Newman’s Own has been an amazing partner to us. On the corporate side, it’s just been fulfilling to partner with companies that are transforming our food system on the for-profit side, like Annie’s, which is really working to bring natural and organic foods to massive scale into people’s homes. To be able to partner with them on the work of FoodCorps from a mission standpoint has been deeply fulfilling.
Denver: Well, you got some blue chip names there. Speaking of government, as you did a moment ago, last year you established a Washington DC office on Capitol Hill and brought on a policy director. What are your priorities and areas that you hope to influence?
Curt: I mentioned the dissatisfaction that all of us feel at FoodCorps with the fact that our direct service work is never going to be able to scale to the size of the challenge we’re working on. Using that direct service program to drive policy reform is one of the strongest pathways we have towards making systemic impact that affects all 100,000 schools in our country. We are tremendously lucky to have hired Kumar Chandran to be our policy director. He was Chief of Staff in the Food and Nutrition Service at USDA which oversees the school meal program, and we’ve built a board that also has a lot of policy strength on it. Kathleen Merrigan who was the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture. John Gomperts, he used to be the Director of AmeriCorps. Dorothy McAuliffe who until recently was the First Lady of Virginia.
We are using the pathways of policy to figure out how you get nutrition education as an institution to change, and that largely plays out at a state level. So, right now in California, we’ll helping to inform revisions to the statewide health education framework which governs how nutrition education happens in that state. And it is largely not based on the latest evidence right now. So we’re trying to get that brought up to date. Then in DC, our work is really about taking the powerful stories and the opportunity to bring legislators to a FoodCorps school… so that we can then drive change in the Child Nutrition Act that governs how the school meal program works at scale, and some key elements of the farm bill that we believe can open larger pathways to scale for the work that FoodCorps does.
If we can shift the quality of meals that are showing up on kids’ lunch trays and do that on a massive scale, that has tremendous potential to shift us towards a future where our kids are healthy, and our kids are well-nourished, and our kids thrive and succeed in their lives.
Denver: Let me close with this Curt. What’s you’re thinking about systems change because that is what FoodCorps exists to do. You’re not here to do charity. You are here to fix a broken system, and you aim to fix it, as you said a moment ago, at 100,000 schools in all 50 states. How do you think about that challenge?
Curt: The first thing we think is there’s no way we’re going to do it alone. So, the question is really, who are the other partners and people we need at the table? And also you have to start thinking in a systems way, and that means you have to diagnose the challenge you’re working on in a way that you are looking for the places of incredible leverage where you could throw a wrench into that engine and dramatically change the way it works. I’ll just name one of those right now, which is that our nation school leaders are not currently incentivized in any way toward making sure kids are healthy. We put tremendous pressure on school leaders around academic performance and attendance, and yet one of the reasons our kids are really failing in school on the international stage is they are so unhealthy when they show up.
So, we need to figure out as a country: how do we get school leaders to see and recognize and be incentivized toward making sure their children are well-nourished when they show up in the classroom? I believe that kind of shift in the incentive structure would have a powerful way of unlocking so many creative minds around the country at this challenge of how you actually connect the kids to healthy food in school. Similarly, what I love about schools is they are a system, and if we can figure out how to change the school system, we can change it at great scale. So that’s why we’re beginning to do this work on the supply side of the school food because ultimately, if we can shift the quality of meals that are showing up on kids’ lunch trays and do that on a massive scale, that has tremendous potential to shift us towards a future where our kids are healthy, and our kids are well-nourished, and our kids thrive and succeed in their lives.
Denver: Curt Ellis, the co-founder and CEO of FoodCorps, I want to thank you so much for being here with us this evening. Tell us about your website and how people can get involved if they’re so inclined with your organization and your mission.
Curt: The website is foodcorps.org. We’re also super active on Twitter and Facebook, and our Instagram is particularly fun. If you love seeing kids do and say hilarious stuff– usually with carrots sticking out of their mouths– this is the place to go.
Denver: Thanks Curt. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.
Curt: Thank you.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at http://www.facebook.com/BusinessOfGiving