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.”
Curt’s interest in agriculture led him to Iowa after college. He figured the best way to understand the food system in the United States was to actually farm the land. In Greene, Iowa, in 2004, he and a friend set out to grow one acre of corn as a way to examine the outsize role the crop plays in our food economy.
He made a documentary about the experience, “King Corn,” and toured the film at college campuses across the country. Ellis was amazed by how many students showed up to watch a documentary about growing corn.
“These students were showing up because they saw food the way I saw it,” he remembers. “Food sits at the intersection of some of the biggest issues of our time, and this generation of young people was looking for an issue they could work on that brought those priorities together, and food was it.”
Food is love, and food is culture, and food connects us to each other and to the land we depend on.
The truth is that, by many accounts, the food system in the U.S. was built to meet the demands of the modern, “fast food” economy, with the government subsidizing all-out production of crops, like corn, that provide the raw materials for processed, often unhealthy, foods.
Children are paying the price. In the U.S., six million children live in food-insecure households—which makes them susceptible to diet-related diseases like diabetes. Children of color and children in poverty are substantially more likely to develop diet-related diseases than more-affluent peers. Children without access to healthy food have a difficult time focusing and learning, too.
“We live in a country with massive disparities of health that break down along the lines of race and class,” Ellis says. “Those realities hold kids back from fulfilling their potential and chasing their dreams.”
Ellis believes that the best way to address these health disparities is to start with schools—the place where children eat as many as half of their daily calories. On average, 30 million children eat lunch through the National School Lunch Program every day. In fact, Ellis thinks of the school cafeteria as the largest restaurant chain in the world: for every McDonald's in America, there are seven lunchrooms.
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.
Ellis believes that by amplifying the work of school-nutrition staff and championing healthy eating in the classroom and cafeteria, we can help level the playing field in other important ways, too.
“There's emerging research showing that improving access to quality school meals is one of the most cost-effective pathways to improving academic performance,” he says.
But there are structural challenges in the way of progress. In many ways, the U.S. school-lunch program was designed to address a set of outdated historic circumstances. The modern school lunch program began in 1946, in the aftermath of World War II, as a means to feed future American soldiers and to use up commodity crops like corn—in surplus because many of the ammonium factories, which had been building bombs during the war, were converted to fertilizer factories.
It’s time we recognized that school lunch isn’t a cost center to be minimized, but a value center we can unlock.
The quality of the food served in school has improved significantly in recent years, driven in part by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, passed in 2010 under the Obama administration and by the efforts of many innovative school nutrition directors. The Trump administration has begun to roll back these policies, which could undermine recent gains.
FoodCorps is now advancing policies that address the structural barriers that make it challenging for schools to source and serve high-quality food. In partnership with the food industry, school districts, government, and other nonprofit organizations, FoodCorps is working to improve individual districts’ ability to source food from local farms, build modern kitchens in cafeterias, mentor food educators, and shift the public perception about school food.
There are already promising signs of progress: Earlier this month, Senators Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, and John Cornyn, R-Texas, introduced a bill to use federal funds to increase nutritional education in schools, inspired by research conducted by FoodCorps.
“Our nation's school meal programs are a critical piece of our national infrastructure that needs to be updated for the 21st century,” Ellis says. “It’s time we recognized that school lunch isn’t a cost center to be minimized, but a value center we can unlock.”
Next fall, FoodCorps will celebrate the ten-year anniversary of its first class of FoodCorps service members. Ellis still remembers meeting the very first cohort, who were setting out across 10 different states for a year of service. “It was an incredibly humbling thing to realize these young people were casting their lot with FoodCorps and trusting us to give them a meaningful experience,” he says.
These young people saw food in a new way; just like Ellis and the hundreds of college students who came out to watch a documentary about growing corn over a decade ago, they saw food as a lever for change.
“Food is a prism that you peer into, and you see our nation’s deepest struggles refracted—human health and public health, environmental sustainability, racial justice and social justice,” Ellis says. “Shift that prism in the light, and you see a glimpse of the possibilities.”