On our last couple days of programming for World Food Week, Link TV spoke with co-founder of FoodCorps, Curt Ellis. Want to get inspired and spread the word about taking real action in communities around food justice? Read this interview. And continue to visit our food page for "Hungry Planet" airtimes, to watch programs online, and to learn more about these critical issues.
Hello Curt, thanks for joining us. Could you tell us a little bit about FoodCorps and how your organization specifically works to fight hunger?
FoodCorps works with a network of young leaders around the country in a kind of Peace Corps for healthy school food. Our service members teach children about healthy food and where it comes from, build and tend school gardens that help kids to grow and cook healthy food themselves, and work with school food service staff and local farmers to bring high-quality food into school lunch. Taken together, these three things -- knowledge, engagement and access -- address two big problems at once: childhood hunger and childhood obesity. It sounds paradoxical, but those two problems are closely linked. Kids who don't have reliable access to healthy food don't get a balanced diet, and all too rarely get reliable access to healthy fruits and vegetables -- so food insecure populations are often the ones with the highest rates of both hunger and obesity. As we see it, school is the best place to start fixing both these problems: 32 million children eat roughly half of their calories 180 days of the year in school. In helping to make that food fresher and healthier, we're setting kids on a path out of hunger and into lifelong health.
Food Corps does a lot of work with youth. What do you think the importance of working with youth around this issue is?
We have a serious health crisis in this country, and it's directly related to the food we eat. Studies show that the relationships we build with food -- healthy or unhealthy -- start in childhood. Children who are eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, as children will grow up to be adults who eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. And, likewise, children who grow up being served fast food in their school cafeterias will feed their own families' fast food someday. If we help kids understand from an early age that healthy food tastes good, that it's fun to grow and prepare, that it makes you feel good, and that it doesn't have to be out of reach financially, we can put powerful and positive change into motion.
What would you say are the current root causes or main factors that contribute to hunger both within the United States and globally?
Unfortunately, much of the food that is seen as affordable in America -- fast food, processed food -- is also some of the least healthy. So we have a shocking number of people in our country who are simultaneously obese and malnourished. Until we have solved problems of access to fruits and vegetables, whole grains and high-quality protein -- both in terms of physical access and financial access -- we'll continue to have these problems of hunger and obesity.
As I see it, if that solution is going to start anywhere, it's going to start in our schools. My grandparents' generation made an important decision: that the children in our country should have lunch in school, so we can be sure they all have an opportunity to get at least one healthy meal a day. Now, with the addition of school breakfast and after-school snack, school food is even more important than it was a generation or two ago. But the food we're serving kids these days looks all too much like fast food, and too little like carrots. We need to change what's on the lunch tray and make sure the tools we're using to fight hunger -- like school lunch -- are really solving the problem they set out to fix.
What do you think are the most pertinent problems in the food industry today?
For a long time, the food industry -- and its consumers -- prioritized quantity over quality. I applaud the efforts to give all people access to an abundant food supply, but I think we took that ideal too far. It's hard to think of anything more important than food, yet we don't treat food, or farmers, with the respect they deserve. I think the food we produce and consume as a nation should have integrity. It should be grown and processed in an ecologically sustainable way, by farmers and workers who are compensated fairly, it should be safe and healthy for people to eat, and it should be accessible to all -- even the least fortunate members of our society. I think those are standards that are important to uphold for something as fundamental as the food we eat. And if we live out those ideals, hunger won't be a problem anymore. Diet-related disease won't be a problem anymore. We won't see Florida tomato growers getting brought to trial on charges of slavery in the fields. And the soil we depend on will continue producing high-quality food for eons to come.
What are the advantages of eating locally grown foods?
Locally grown foods are fresher, so in most cases they'll taste better and be more nutritious to boot. Vitamins are fragile, so vegetables that are trucked long distances can lose half their nutrient content! Also, sourcing locally grown food keeps a huge amount of money in the local economy, and the reduction in transportation reduces greenhouse gas emissions and reliance on oil. In some ways, though, I think the most important thing that comes from eating locally is the sense that food comes from somewhere. That it's grown by someone. And that's a reminder that those people and places matter.
You've also co-created a few documentaries. Can you give our readers a synopsis of those films and how they relate to food?
Before joining the effort to start FoodCorps, I got to collaborate on a few films that explored the food world. I worked with Ian Cheney and Aaron Woolf on a documentary called King Corn, which was about a year we spent in Iowa growing an acre of corn (well, an acre of corn syrup and corn-fed fast-food meat, as it turned out). I worked with those two again on a follow-up to King Corn called Big River, which explored the ecological consequences of modern agriculture. And then I helped Ian make a film about the wacky and amazing people who are bringing farming into urban places. That film was called Truck Farm, and it starts with a project we did planting a vegetable garden in the back of an '86 Dodge Pickup. You can find the first couple films on Netflix, and the third on Amazon.
How can people help alleviate hunger both on an individual and societal level?
That's a big question, and if it could be answered in a paragraph I think someone would have done so already. But I'll highlight a few things. On the individual level, I think it's important that we learn -- and help others learn -- how to grow and cook healthy, affordable food. During World War II, home gardeners were producing more than half of America's food. There's no reason we shouldn't be planting our window boxes and truck beds and vacant lots in healthy, high-quality, incredibly affordable food. On the societal level, we have some powerful building blocks for creating a healthy food environment for all. The national school lunch program is a powerful place to start. If we use that existing program as a way to make sure all children in America grow up having regular access to real, healthy food, we'll go a long way toward solving hunger in America.
What role does independent media play in raising awareness about these issues?
The mainstream media has really embraced food as an important issue in the last decade, and that's been great to see. Unfortunately, before that, I think they were missing much of the story, and it was independent outlets that were the first to highlight the way that food shapes our environment, our health and our sense of justice and equality.
What changes do you hope to see in the next 50 years?
Most importantly, I'd like to see us reverse the present statistic that this generation of children is the first that is likely to have a shorter lifespan than their parents. In fifty years I hope we have healthier children: children who feel connected to their food and have an enduring and healthy relationship with it.
I hope we can come together as a nation around the simple belief that food is important. That it's important enough that no child should go hungry. That it's important enough that it should be produced responsibly, sustainably, and ethically. That it should be available to all. If we can do that, I'll feel pretty good about our ability to solve some of the other tough problems we're facing as a society.
How can someone get involved in your organization or work?
For young leaders, the best way to get involved is to apply to become a service member in FoodCorps; applications for next year's class will be available this winter. For everyone else, if you support FoodCorps with a financial contribution, no matter how small, you can help us meet our goal of expanding our program into all 50 states by 2020. With your help, we can make sure more than a million kids are eating healthy, high-quality school lunch every day.