Your child might get three squares a day, but there are kids out there who don’t know where broccoli comes from. Or what fresh spinach looks like. Or the incomparable flavor of fresh sweet corn on the cob. For many of America’s youth, produce comes from cans or boxes—or it simply doesn’t show up at the table at all. Jerusha Klemperer, cofounder of FoodCorps, is dedicated to changing the state of things. Her organization, founded in 2009 by Klemperer and five other visonaries, sends service members out into communities across the country. There, for a $15,000 stipend, the service members pair up with schools and nonprofits to help kids learn the basics of gardening and healthy eating.
Klemperer tells us what it takes to launch such a massive initiative, what FoodCorps members are learning on the ground, and why Americans should care about connecting kids with food.
How did you get involved in food activism?
I think my interest started when I became a vegetarian many years ago (though I’m not a vegetarian now). For me, it came out of a developing belief that I shouldn’t eat animals if I wasn’t comfortable killing them. I’m a real softie—I knew I didn’t have the cojones to do that myself!
A friend, recognizing that developing interest, handed me a book called Fast Food Nation. It was a real awakening. Once you start paying attention to how your food gets to your plate, it’s kind of hard not to get interested and follow that thread. It sparked a bit of rage in me.
(Laughs) Well, as a coordinator of that conference, I’m sure my experience was a different than it is just attending! But I will say it was a wonderful, special experience that anyone should jump on if they have the chance.
The magic of being there is the realization that, while our global agricultural system is being industrialized, there is also a worldwide sustainable food movement. Small farmers are fighting to hold on to their production methods or even to revive the traditions of the past. It’s a moving experience to encounter people from all over the world with the same goals and passions that we have here.
You built this thing from scratch. Are you surprised it came together?
I feel very lucky to have been part of something so visionary, yet common-sensical. To be here from the beginning is great; and very humbling. The mission of this organization is so deeply ingrained in each of us because we wrote it together. There’s a lot of trust among the staff.
What has been a stand-out victory at FoodCorps?
Simply putting this program out there and seeing that it can work. We put out this call, saying, “Do you want to apply to be a service member for an organization that doesn’t exist yet? We can’t tell you exactly what it will look like, we can’t offer you any testimonials of people who have done it before,” and 1,229 people applied!
Then, we found 50 people who were fantastic and willing to go to states they’d never been to before and do service work on a $15,000 stipend. Each week they come back with success stories: we helped revive a school garden; we built another garden; we got 500 pounds of local sweet potatoes onto school cafeteria trays.
What kind of stories are your service members coming back with?
A lot of them mention being treated like special rock stars by the students; being called “the garden lady.” Students will tell the service members that now they want to try every vegetable they see. One service member brought in carrots and a student said they would only eat them with ranch dressing. After a 90-minute lesson, the student was willing to try carrots without dressing. Stories like that make me happy.