January is Healthy Living Month here at Repair the World. Stop by all month long for interviews with our favorite health-focused organizations, inspiring stories, and tips to change your life while changing the world.

Its no surprise that we love service programs here at Repair the World. We also love organizations that work to create healthier kids and communities. So we’re pretty much over the moon for FoodCorps, an organization that’s part of the AmeriCorps service network, and that “connects kids to real food and helps them grow up healthy.” Yeah. Pretty awesome.

Since 2011, FoodCorps’ service members have served as garden educators, farm-to-classroom instructors, and all around food and community advocates in states across the country. Their service is changing the way kids think about – and eat! – food, and growing a new generation of farmers, food activists, and healthy eaters.

FoodCorps co-founder and communications director, Jerusha Klemperer, took some time to talk with Repair the World about how farming and childhood health are connected, the serious kudos FoodCorps has gotten from the White House, and why FoodCorps service members leave her feeling very optimistic. Read on to find out more about this great organization, and learn how you can become a FoodCorps service member in 2014!

What was the inspiration behind FoodCorps?
We are proud of the fact that the original conversation started in an open space session at a Food and Community Gathering of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. One of our founders, Curt, had read that President Obama had recently signed the Kennedy Serve America Act, which put resources towards service programs. After making the documentary King Corn, he was interested in helping to build a new generation of farmers. He said, “anyone who wants to talk about how we might tap into this funding, come meet me in this room,” and a ton of people showed up.

From there, conversations began to happen and we realized that the funding couldn’t actually go to private companies, which is what farms are. We also realized how connected the disappearance of farm land in this country is with childhood health – we are seeing the effects of a broken food system playing out in our nations’ children. So we thought, what if we could connect these two issues, providing an opportunity for young people to train in garden education, farm-to-school programs, and community organizing, while addressing the pressing need of childhood health? After that, it all happened very quickly. Our pilot year of FoodCorps service members was in 2011, and we are now on our third year.

Tell me more about what service members do?
When you sign up to be an AmeriCorps service member, you sign up for 1,700 hours of direct service over 1 year. We have 125 service members placed in 15 states across the country. We select host organizations in each state, and they help pull together which sites and organizations the service members will serve with. Our ultimate goal is for service members to serve in schools, but they also end up at non-profits that work directly with schools.

There are three pillars to the program: knowledge, engagement and access. Knowledge means teaching the students about healthy food. Engagement refers to doing hands on lessons with them – so building gardens,or doing cooking demonstrations. And the access piece means that in addition to learning about good food and growing it, the students have to have a daily opportunity to eat that food. If the foods they eat at home and the school lunch don’t reflect what they’re learning, it just doesn’t work the same.

Our service members get involved with procurement, collaborating with the schools to help get these foods into kids’ lunches. They help connect school administrators with farmers, and all of a sudden an entire school district has access to local cabbage or collards. It sounds small, but it can signify thousands of pounds of food. And that way, the kids can grow cabbage seeds in the classroom and then see cabbage on the lunch line.

Gerbatsch in the caf smiling

Tell me about your Fellowship Program.
We also have a FoodCorps Fellowship for returning service members. When they join the Fellowship, they become the lead organizer for one of the states we serve in, acting as a liaison and helping to plan the state wide trainings. They have turned out to be invaluable. The fellows also take on a project for the year. One of our fellows served on a project called boat to school to help get Oregon seafood into school lunches. She chronicled the obstacles and then helped implement the program.

Have you gotten any attention from the White House?
We have! Sam Kass, who is the Executive Director of the White House’s Let’s Move! campaign sent out a video message to our service members. We also have a mid-year gathering every year, and the first year we went to DC and had a tour of the White House’s garden. It was actually very special and moving to see, and the service members thought it was thrilling.

What are some exciting things you have planned going forward?
Well we are about to announce our two new states for the coming year. And starting January 10th, the applications will be open for next year’s service members.

What has it meant to you personally to be a part of this amazing program from the beginning?
It has made me feel incredibly optimistic. It is amazing to be connected to all these service members who are so bright and so motivated and so ready to tackle the issue of childhood health from a number of sides. They are preparing themselves for careers and ready to serve. It gives me a lot of hope.

Be a FoodCorps’ service member! From January 10-March 30, 2014, you can apply to join the team and make a difference.