“FoodCorps is creating model school food environments and we would like to see policies that help scale the kind of changes we are making in FoodCorps’ 600 schools to all 100,000 public schools. Every child deserves to know what healthy food is, to have a chance to grow it in a garden and to eat it every day.”
– Jerusha Klemperer
Jerusha Klemperer is a co-founder of FoodCorps and currently serves as the organization’s communications director. Prior to working for FoodCorps, Jerusha was an Associate Program Director at Slow Food USA, where she helped design and implement national lifestyle and advocacy campaigns that sought to transform food policy as well as individuals’ relationships to food. Her first campaign there was “Time for Lunch,” in which she helped to mobilize thousands of people around the country to advocate for healthier school meals. She was also responsible for starting and editing the organization’s blog and building its social media presence. She has over 15 years experience working in nonprofits and is a graduate of Swarthmore College and Columbia University. In her free time she tries to turn her black thumb green and occasionally practices the art of storytelling at a microphone, around office tables and over meals with unwitting listeners.
FoodCorps is a nationwide team of AmeriCorps leaders who connect kids to real food and help them grow up healthy. These leaders are in limited-resource communities for a year of public service where they teach hands-on lessons about food and nutrition; build and tend school gardens and teach cooking lessons; and help change what’s on lunch trays by giving kids healthy food from local farms.
The UC Food Observer met Jerusha a number of years ago, when she and other FoodCorps co-founders were framing the vision for the organization. We’ve followed her work with great admiration and were happy to get a chance to catch up with her for an update.
Q: FoodCorps is celebrating an important anniversary…we’re excited! Tell us more.
Jerusha: Yes…five years! We’re celebrating all year long. Right now our 5th class of service members is in schools making a difference, and August 2016 is the fifth anniversary of our first class in the field.
Q: Did you ever envision that FoodCorps was going to have this much success when you were brainstorming this work?
Jerusha: Absolutely…But I don’t know that any of us knew what the particulars would look like. The initial brainstorming occurred at a W.K. Kellogg Foundation gathering. The very early backing from the Kellogg Foundation and AmeriCorps were essential building blocks, since we received planning grants from both of them. That support and insightful contributions in our planning process from large and influential networks of people doing incredible work in this field really helped set the organization up for success. As a result, we started off with money as well as the political will to engage in the work.
Q: What are you thinking and hoping for the next five years?
Jerusha: A huge part of what we’re working on with our board and executive team right now is visioning for 2020. We’ve refined our theory of change and are rigorous about using it to direct our work and planning.
Alongside that process we’ve refined the tools we use to measure the impact of our work, working with the Tisch Food Center at Teachers College at Columbia University. These tools measure the ways in which our service members are making their school food environments healthier, and they measure how much their students grow in their attitudes towards vegetables (which is a good measure of their likelihood of consuming more of them, leading to better health outcomes). We’re being very intentional with how we administer our program and how we evaluate our work.
We hope that the data we gather can be helpful not just to us, but to the farm to school field overall. There are a few great studies that demonstrate the value of this work, but there is a need for more of them, with really large data sets. With 205 service members in 600 schools around the country, we are excited to be able to offer really comprehensive numbers and validation that these interventions work.
Q: You mention refining your theory of change. Can you explain that?
Jerusha: We see our program as having direct impacts on kids and schools, and then the potential to influence larger, systemic change. So we are helping kids build lifelong positive relationships with healthy food and working with the school community to make the school food environment healthier. That’s the impact piece. But we hope that we also have an ability to have a huge influence by leveraging our data and the stories of success to help make the case for the program being institutionalized on a larger scale.
We want to make the case for it being a given that this is what education looks like and what school food environments look like. We want districts and schools to be able to have these programs. Some districts we work with have started to hire FoodCorps alumni, which we see as an encouraging sign.
Q: Many of us see the leadership capacity of your alumni as an incredibly important outcome of the FoodCorps work. Can you tell us more?
Jerusha: You know Chris Massa in Ventura County [California]. He’s one of our former service members who is now working as a Farm to School Operations Specialist and working with the current service member in a professional capacity.
Each year we are growing a new cohort of graduates who are food systems leaders and future food systems leaders. We have four classes of alumni – now more than two hundred strong – who are embedded in school food work, public health, education, policy…the list goes on. And they are all around the country. Be on the lookout for them!
Q: What would you want to share about the value of the work with potential service members?
Jerusha: It’s a wonderful way to spend a year— or two. Service members have a real impact in their communities, and the experience will make a difference in their own lives and set them up for a career in this field. We often hear from former service members that they didn’t understand, going in, the full breadth of learning they would have, and what they would be set up to do in the end. Service members become experts on school food, learn how to be great growers, community organizers and educators.
Q: What policy changes would you like to see that might help your work with FoodCorps?
Jerusha: FoodCorps is creating model school food environments and we would like to see policies that help scale the kind of changes we are making in FoodCorps’ 600 schools to all 100,000 public schools. Every child deserves to know what healthy food is, to have a chance to grow it in a garden and to eat it every day.
We also would like a Child Nutrition Act that supports Farm to School and upholds healthy standards for school food so that all children can have access to the healthiest meals possible.
Q: How can people support FoodCorps?
Jerusha: We welcome donations of course. You can also support us by following us on Twitter, liking us on Facebook, or tracking daily photos of our work in the field on Instagram. You can buy a “Friend of FoodCorps” tshirt and wear it around to make your friends jealous.
You can also apply to be a service member. Our application opens for next year on January 8th.
Most importantly, you can contact your Congressperson over the holidays and let him/her know that you care about school lunch being healthy, since it feeds over 30 million kids around the country, and is for many of them the primary source of their calories. The Child Nutrition Act will be reauthorized first thing after Congress heads back into session in the new year.