Kevin: Five million children in the U.S. live in food-insecure households, uncertain if they have enough money for meals. This not only affects their nutrition, but it could also impact their performance in school as well. How has the pandemic affected students who rely on free school meals? Does the lack of access to nutritious foods impact student learning and outcomes? And what can we do to break stigmas around food insecurity to ensure that every student has the nutrition they need to succeed? This is What I Want to Know, and today, I'm joined by Curt Ellis to find out.
Kevin: Curt Ellis is the co-founder and CEO of FoodCorps, a nonprofit dedicated to ensuring that all students experience food justice and receive an equitable education. Prior to founding FoodCorps, Curt co-created and appeared in the award-winning documentary King Corn, which explores modern trends in agriculture and farming in the U.S. Today, he joins me to discuss the food disparities in schools and what we can do to ensure kids receive the nutrition necessary to learn. Curt, welcome to the show.
Curt: Thanks so much, Kevin. Great to be here.
Kevin: Before we get into this discussion about nutrition and food and how our kids can receive nutritious meals in schools, I do want to hear a little bit about your journey and what led you to this work.
Curt: I think what really shaped my relationship to food was that I'm from a big family. We always grew a big garden. We always cooked together. The dinner table was where we came together and broke bread and hashed things out among the six kids and my two parents. And I experienced food as love and food as connection and food as a joy and health, and it came to be really important to me.
Kevin: First, this idea of what motivated you: family, love, togetherness — so many people talk about that. In fact, the number one indicator of the success of a child in school relates to them having regular sit-down dinner at home. Of all the things that people wonder about in terms of what will make a child successful, what makes a child feel safe and secure, having a sit-down meal at home is the number one factor, and most people don't think about that. And why is that?
Curt: Yeah. I mean, I think it is easy to mis-imagine that food is fuel. And sure, it is that; it is fuel for our bodies and fuel for our minds. And we better get it right so that we're healthy and can show up as our best selves every day, whether that's in school or at work. But food is also the currency of human connection. I mean, it's the greatest tool we as humans have ever had for coming together with our family and with our friends and connecting across lines of difference, and having an experience of culture being handed on from one generation to the next, and conversation bringing us together. That's what food can do. That's the real joy and power of food, that it can bring us together and be a marker of our culture and identity. And that's what I want everybody to be able to experience around food, especially kids in school.
Kevin: Now let's talk about King Corn because that was obviously a powerful documentary and must've been a life-changing experience for you. Did you find as you got into the making of King Corn that you overturned new stones and went down different roads? It's got to be hard to say, "Where do I edit, and where do I cut it off?"
Curt: Sure enough. Yeah, so after we graduated from college, my best friend and I moved to Iowa. We decided to grow one acre of corn the way a typical farmer might grow 1,000 acres of corn, and then follow the journey of our harvest as it became food. And the food that corn becomes is largely corn oil for french fries, corn syrup for sodas, and corn feed for corn-fed hamburgers that end up in a fast food meal. And as we started to tell that story, we really just kind of unraveled the strand of how our food system really works, which is: it's a food system that is rooted in old government policies that have long outlasted their utility in the world. And the rest of us who are wandering around on the planet now are having to face the reality that was created by these government policies that subsidize the all-out production of cheap corn and cheap soybeans, and that make it easy to have fast food and hard to have access to healthy, high-quality food.
And if you layer on top of that redlining and structural racism and structural poverty, you end up with a food system that discriminates, a food system that makes it incredibly hard for folks who are already so deserving of equity in this country to have a hard time accessing the nourishment they need to thrive every day and to nourish their kids for their own success. The reality is, right now, our food system isn't working for us. One in 10 American families is struggling with some degree of food insecurity, where they don't have enough healthy food on the table at home. And another one in 10 American families is struggling with diabetes.
And the reality is we've got dual epidemics of nutrition insecurity and diet-related disease. And we don't have that kind of ability to tap into the real magic of food everywhere at every meal, where food can be a marker of our culture and something that brings us together and helps us connect across lines of difference, and that's really what I want to see.
Kevin: People don't know what they don't know, and I'm assuming that's part of the reason why you founded FoodCorps. So talk a little bit about FoodCorps and what you do and what your team does every day relating to this issue.
Curt: Yeah. So a dozen years ago, when I was traveling around with the King Corn film I'd made, I went to 100 different college campuses. And everywhere I went, I met young people who were really passionate about food as this issue that sits at the intersection of social and racial justice, human health and public health, environmental sustainability. And there was all this energy from young people wanting to make a difference and build a more just and healthful and sustainable approach to food in our country, but there weren't clear pathways for those folks to get onto to make a difference.
And so a group of colleagues and I started an organization called FoodCorps that could step into that void. And our initial idea was, let's create a pathway for passionate, dedicated young people around the country to do a year of public service in an AmeriCorps position, kind of like the Peace Corps, or Teach For America, or Habitat For Humanity, where they can spend a year building school gardens, teaching kids about healthy food, cooking with kids, giving kids the chance to smell the leaves of the tomato plant or bite into a carrot with the dirt still on it. And we started building out this nationwide food corps, where young people could get involved in school communities, making a difference, connecting kids to healthy food, prioritizing those places that were most deserving of equity, communities that for too long had been oppressed or marginalized by systemic poverty and racism. And we began growing that work.
And over time, FoodCorps has become an annual class of 200 corps members who are doing hands-on food education with kids and doing district-level initiatives to improve school food or elevate school meals through scratch cooking and local sourcing and culturally affirming lunch menus, the things that our school and district partners want to put in place, but don't always have the support and resources to put in place on their own. And then we do a lot of policy and advocacy work that's around creating a future where every child in this country can have food education and nourishing food in school every day without any barriers to access.
Kevin: It is often a sad statement when you think about it that we get rid of hundreds of tons of garbage food that we don't eat every year, and yet, there are folks every day who suffer from the lack of nutrition and even malnutrition in this country, and many of our children. The lunch program that exists for our students in our public schools, for many students, that's the best meal they would get every day. And yet, there are a couple of challenges. One is that some of the providers provide food that isn't as nutritious and healthy. And the other thing, frankly, is that for many of the students who are receiving this food, there's a stigma attached to the lunch program because you can only get it if you are below the poverty line, so even a lot of kids who want to get it, and I know this from firsthand experience is they say, "Oh, well, no, I don't want it," because they don't want to be teased by their colleagues.
I've always believed, Curt, that this is something we should provide for every student, irrespective of socioeconomic status. That's the first thing I want you to talk about. And secondly, what about the source of food that is given to these students in school? What can we do to make sure that they're getting the right food that's nutritious and it's not some of those plastic bag preservative meals that ultimately aren't good for kids, or aren't good for anyone?
Curt: Now we're in a place where schools have been innovating within a very challenging system. And across the country, you see great school nutrition leaders introducing salad bars, locally sourced food that reflects what farmers in that area have grown that's ripe right now, food that is affirming of the cultures of kids who are in that school community, so serving [inaudible 00:11:01], or banh mi, or serving food that is collard greens and peas, depending on where you are in the country and what the student population there might want to eat at home and might feel included if it's being served in their school.
And we see more scratch cooking happening. A lot of schools around the country are figuring out how to get the money to build school kitchens and replace the kind of heat and serve structures that they have with a real kind of scratch cooking kitchen, where they can bake bread, and they can roast whole chickens, and they can figure out how to get food to kids that is as fresh and healthy as possible. The reality is, though, there are real barriers to doing that. If you have about a dollar per child per day to buy the ingredients for school meals, it's super hard to buy great food.
If you have a workforce that you're not able to pay at the top of the market, and you can't even compete with a McDonald's for your labor pool, that makes it really hard to get the kind of talent that you need in school kitchens. So around the country, there are people who are working within the system to try to get it as right as possible. But there are structural things and policy changes that we need to put in place to actually make the great choice for school food the easy choice for the folks who are on the front lines doing that work every day.
Kevin: What's the role of the federal government, though, in helping to accelerate the change? Because, as you know, the federal government — they have the bully pulpit, and they also have some federal dollars tied to a host of issues where they leverage that power to ensure that states are looking out for people, and they're getting some support with respect to resources needed to drive an initiative. What should the federal government be doing to help facilitate this dynamic change that you're alluding to?
Curt: Yeah. The Biden administration recently released their National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition and Health. And this is the first of its kind in 50 years to really try to have a national conference and a national strategy around: How do we make sure everybody in this country is well nourished and set up to thrive? And the very first recommendation in the National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition and Health was, as you suggested, to make school meals free for every child and to make sure that those meals were presented without stigma, or shame, or barriers to access, and to make sure that those meals were as scratch cooked and as locally sourced as possible.
Those are the steps we need to start taking at the federal government level to really shift school meals from being some kind of side business that school districts are somehow expected or required to be in, that they treat like a cost center to minimize, and instead, help reposition school meals as what they are, which is, they are an integral part of the school day for children. They're an integral part of a child's academic and holistic development. And if we do them right, they really are a value center. They're an impact center that is worthy of some meaningful investment because they're the best chance we have to show kids that they matter and that they belong, and that their schools are there to support them in every way, not just in the development of their brain, but the development of their bodies, and the affirmation of their culture and identity, too.
Kevin: And Curt, I'm sure you know this, but there is a direct link between a child's nutrition and their ability to be both ready to learn and then be able to learn. And I remember, years ago I helped facilitate breakfast for a teacher in Southeast D.C. because he believed that if he were able to feed the kids, because they were all coming to school hungry, then he could get better outcomes. And lo and behold, he did, and he became National Teacher of the Year.
There's still this feeling, as you said, and I'm glad you used this expression, that food distribution in schools is part of a cost center. And I really believe, like you, that it should be an integral part of learning. And I also believe that one of the things that school districts can do is find partners to help them. You talked about local farmers and some of the local outsourcing and resources. If a superintendent, let's say in a suburban or rural county, is listening to this show now, what advice would you give them in terms of how to address the food shortfall issues in their school? Where should they begin?
Curt: Yeah. I mean, I think job one is to sit down with the child nutrition leader for your district and sit down with some kids, and have a shared conversation about: What is the purpose of feeding kids in this school? What are we really trying to achieve? What are our goals? And then try to make the list of what are we doing now that feels like it's really working for kids and for the school nutrition team, and for the superintendent and principals and teachers and other stakeholders. And list what are we doing that could be improved within the constraints we're operating within, or with some modest additional help from the kind of partners that are out there, whether that's an organization like FoodCorps, where we can provide FoodCorps lessons for hands-on learning, or we can provide AmeriCorps members in the right context to help build school gardens and teach kids about healthy food. Or whether that's getting some additional training and support from great folks like the Chef Ann Foundation, which helps schools convert to scratch cooking if they want to do that.
Kevin: By the way, listening to you talk and thinking about your corps members, how do you determine which schools you partner with and how you assign your corps members?
Curt: Yeah. So when we place our FoodCorps AmeriCorps members into the context of schools and districts, the first thing we do is we make sure that we’re really needed. So, more than 50% of the kids we serve are always on free or reduced school meals in FoodCorps schools. And typically, it's more like 80%. We also pay attention to racial equity, and 80% plus of the kids we serve are kids of color. But we try to serve across rural and urban and Indigenous contexts because we know that our country is diverse, and if we're going to build a model for how to do this work nationwide, we need to work in those different contexts.
The next thing we look for is: Do schools and districts really have a commitment to doing this work themselves? I think you have to be oriented around some goals of your own as a school or district to try to elevate food and food education and access to great food in schools, or else we're just going to be a kind of add-on that does some nice work while we're there, and then whenever our resources have to go somewhere else, the work won't continue. So, we really prioritize places that have their own goals and can see FoodCorps’ resources fitting into that. And then we look for places where if we can do really powerful work in that community, it'll make a real difference in policy and try to actually shift the momentum of the system as a whole.
Kevin: So Curt, one last question, this is what I really want to know. In the wake of the pandemic, there's been heightened attention drawn to kids and families that are suffering from poverty and the lack of nutrition in their foods. What can be done beyond meals in school to help curb that gap in terms of families and children who are in food-insecure homes? What more can be done now that there's greater attention that's focused on this issue?
Curt: Yeah. I mean, I think it was such a wake-up call for us as a country to see those long lines at the San Antonio Food Bank and see car, after car, after car lined up to get a box of food. And the reality is that is the story that is already in place in many of our schools and communities around the country. It just doesn't show up as visibly as it did during the pandemic. But so many kids and families are always right on the margins of being able to have enough healthy food on the table at home.
So I believe schools provide a critical bulwark against hunger and nutrition insecurity in this country, so making sure schools have the support they need to feed kids great food every day is job one. Second thing is there are some really interesting proposals in the national strategy that was just released by the White House, like expanding the summer EBT program and making sure that families get access to SNAP dollars that they can spend over the summer if their kids aren't going to be in school with that kind of daily access to healthy food. Let's make sure families can go to a supermarket and get that access to food as well.
And then I would say some of the upstream work that is really happening right now is to address the generational gaps in wealth and the legacies of enslavement in this country, and actually put in place some basic assets and basic insurance that folks are going to have the resources they need to meet the most fundamental needs their families have around health and well-being, and that begins with food. So that work is to understand: How do we actually end poverty in this country and make sure folks have the resources they need to do right by their family? That's a critical part of the equation, too. Schools matter a whole bunch, and they are not the only answer, but they're just part of the answer.
Kevin: Yeah. Well, Curt, thank you very much. Well said, and thank you for the work you're doing. And we much appreciate you joining me on What I Want to Know.
Curt: Thanks so much, Kevin. Great to be here.
Kevin: Thanks for listening to What I Want to Know. Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app, so you can explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. And write a review of the show. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using hashtag WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK. For more information on Stride and online education, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining What I Want to Know.
Curt Ellis is the co-founder and CEO of FoodCorps, a nonprofit dedicated to ensuring all students experience food justice and receive an equitable education. He partners with schools and community leaders to improve student health, education and belonging.
Prior to founding FoodCorps, Curt co-created and appeared in the award-winning documentary “King Corn,” which explores modern trends in U.S. agriculture and farming.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.