Maine should develop policies and programs that encourage children to eat healthy foods not just because it’s the humane thing to do but because of the long-term economic impacts. A healthier child is more likely to be a healthier, more productive adult.
It will require many different approaches to reduce the number of Maine children who are overweight or obese. Some methods include the following: ensuring that communities are walkable; supporting programs that educate pregnant women about a healthy diet; implementing fun school exercise programs that complement gym class, such as Move More Kids; and setting up more farmers markets to be able to accept food stamps.
Another effort also shows promise. Called FoodCorps, the national nonprofit service organization began in California on Earth Day in 2009, the day President Barack Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act to expand AmeriCorps. It aims to improve students’ nutrition education, help schools grow vegetables able to be served in their cafeterias and connect students with local farms.
FoodCorps was rolled out in 10 states in August 2011. It was, to put it mildly, popular. More than 100 organizations in 38 states and the District of Columbia competed to have FoodCorps members come to their communities. Less than one-third of FoodCorps funding comes from the federal government; much of it comes from foundations.
Maine drew six FoodCorps members last school year who served 11,634 hours, conducted 1,530 activities with youth and engaged 168 volunteers. Hosted by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, they helped build 12 new school gardens and 10 new community gardens, and revitalized 98 school and community gardens.
This school year, the program has expanded because of a grant from the Maine Commission for Community Service. There will now be 10 FoodCorps members working at sites that serve students in Washington, Penobscot, Piscataquis, Waldo, Knox, Lincoln, Somerset, York, Cumberland, Androscoggin, Oxford and Kennebec counties.
The program has promise because of its focus on building community connections that will last beyond the life of the program. Many nutrition directors and teachers already work hard to educate children about healthy food choices, but they might not have time to engage business leaders, libraries, farmers, master gardeners and co-ops — to sustain school garden programs, find volunteers, learn techniques or obtain local fish, beef, poultry and dairy products for a cafeteria.
Genna Cherichello is a FoodCorps member based at the Knox-Lincoln Cooperative Extension in Waldoboro and works with students in Regional School Units 40 (Waldoboro, Friendship, Warren, Union and Washington) and 13 (Rockland, Thomaston, St. George, Owls Head, South Thomaston and Cushing) to increase their access to local, fresh food. Recently she said she helped teach high school students at Oceanside East in Rockland how to cook with new ingredients. They made Swiss chard wraps out of steamed Swiss chard, local onions, garlic, tomatoes, peppers, purple basil, shredded mozzarella and a homemade sauce.
After eating them, the students decided they wanted to harvest more Swiss chard to be able to make the new recipe at home on their own. Cherichello said one of her favorite things to do is to teach students how to make delicious meals with healthy ingredients that they typically wouldn’t eat. When they have a sense of ownership of their food — by growing it or knowing how to make fruits and vegetables into something tasty — they are taking one big step toward healthier eating.
We hope FoodCorps lessons will be passed on to communities that don’t have a FoodCorps member. The ultimate goal should be to instill in young people that no matter what direction their lives take, one constant should be the healthy food they eat. For that to happen, they need to be fully engaged in the process early. At a time when preventable diseases are the largest single cause of death, more must be done to facilitate prevention. Growing vegetables in a school garden, or in large containers on a porch, is a basic way for youth to have a chance to be healthier — not to mention eat tasty food.