Meet Debra Eschmeyer of FoodCorps & Let’s Move!

by Erin McCarthy

Published: 3/04/15, Last updated: 5/24/19

2015 UPDATE: In January, we were thrilled to hear that Deb was tapped to serve as the new director of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign, replacing Sam Kass (who also served as White House chef). The Obama administration could not have made a better choice than Deb, whose farming background, coupled with her years of experience working with the Farm to School Network and FoodCorps, will serve her well in Washington.

Deb Eschmeyer may possess a classic Midwestern friendliness, but don’t let that fool you, underneath her girl-next-door exterior is a woman on a mission whose masterful knowledge of farming and food policy, coupled with an unrelenting passion to provide all children with healthy, local food makes her a tour de force in the good food movement. Deb is the voice of the Farm to School Network and the burgeoning “domestic peace corps” called FoodCorps, which places young people directly in schools districts to provide them a better connection with local farmers. Deb is an Ohio farmgirl at heart and an early experience with slaughter propelled her to deeply connect with her food at a very young age. Lucky us.

First things first — for those who haven’t been playing along at home, tell us about the Child Nutrition Reauthorization.

We can celebrate! Congress passed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act after Thanksgiving in the lame duck session which includes the creation of a Farm to School competitive grant program with mandatory funding in the tune of $5 million a year. Once every five years school meals are put on the Congressional kitchen’s front burner through reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act. There is a good summary of the new historic provisions here. This victory happened partly because of countless advocates: making phone calls, writing letters, visiting elected officials, taking photos and being the voice for change.

What is your first memory of food?

My very first food memory is actually somewhat gross and traumatic. When all of my older siblings were in school (I’m the youngest of seven kids), my dad needed to take one of the old dairy cows in for slaughter. So I witnessed a cow being slaughtered when I was five years old. And that is my very first, strong food memory: I can actually picture the hanging bovine, with the lengthy coarse tongue hanging out and the blood flowing to the drain. It’s one of those few very clear young flash bulb memories; it really brought the farm and food system full circle for me at a very young age. I’d already spent many hours on the tractor, milking in the dairy barn, and feeding calves at that point, but I’d never experienced the required death before the meat lands on the plate. And it was one of those poignant moments where I started to appreciate animal protein … never wanting to waste an ounce of meat I’ve ever eaten, and it took me a little while after that to actually eat meat, much to my mother’s dismay. But it was the first time I truly started to appreciate how much work it took to fuel society and what it meant and how much honor it took to bring something to the plate.

What is it about your upbringing that led you to work on school food?

My roots. Partly because I grew up on a dairy farm, I was ingrained at a very young age for an appreciation of all the hard work that goes into growing food, and I want all children to know who their farmer is, just like knowing your doctor. Not many people know that the school meal is the most highly regulated, researched, rallied for and railed against meal in the country. It’s a very complicated meal because it’s looked at from so many different facets from health to nutrition to the environment to agricultural to education.

As for my career trajectory into school food system reform, it was not a direct path. I left the farm to go to college, to never return. I wanted to travel and learn about other cultures, so I left school to take on international relations and humanitarian work. What brought me back to food and farm policy and eventually school food work, was working with indigenous populations who valued their food sovereignty, which led me to learn about international food policy and then to truly realize the value of my background and upbringing on the farm. So long story short, it brought me to work in Washington for fair food policies, including dairy policy no less. To be quite blunt, I kind of burnt out on some of the policies because it was so disheartening to work endless hours on incremental change and then watch the legislation not receive appropriations or get cut out in the final versions.

I wanted to focus on active working change: Farm to School. I was introduced to Farm to School programs around 2005, and I saw the program as this perfect snapshot of our food system. High quality local food, nutrition education, and hands on learning with school gardens providing for the most vulnerable populations through our educational system, it’s ideal! Farm to School plants lifelong healthy eating habits through the three Cs: the classroom and the community and the cafeteria. This is the way forward of teaching the next generation to appreciate food and to understand that in dreaming up the 50 year farm bill, from now until 2060, when we look at how food policy will be — this generation will have grown up with Farm to School programs! This is how we’re going to invest in truly changing and reforming the food system: through school meals because we have a responsibility to educate our youth in school and to me that needs to include food. I see Farm to School programs as being that perfect snapshot of how we can initiate real systemic change.

Your latest project, FoodCorps, stations young people directly in schools to address school food issues. How will it work?

With boots on the ground!

I have received thousands of requests from around the country saying: “I love the idea of a Farm to School program, but how do I get started in my community’s school? Our budgets are tight and we just don’t have the sweat equity and the labor to pull it off.” Now I have an answer: FoodCorps!

When you think about the good food movement, think about how far we’ve come. The Obama Administration challenged us: “Prove you have a movement.”

FoodCorps is a national Farm to School AmeriCorps program in development that focuses on service in school food systems of high obesity, limited access communities. Service members will build and tend school gardens, conduct hands-on nutrition education, and facilitate programming that brings local food into public schools. FoodCorps will at once serve vulnerable children, improving access to healthy, affordable food, while also serving its members by training young leaders for careers in food and agriculture.

In the spirit of service for healthier kids, FoodCorps aims to place82 members on the ground in 10 states to work 139,400 hours during the 2011-2012 school year.

Working within three pillars — nutrition education, school gardens and local procurement — FoodCorps aims to reform the school feeding system with this powerful resurgence of energy from AmeriCorps members. And just to go back to why this is so necessary, our country is dealing with an epidemic of obesity but we also have an issue of one in four children being hungry, so we’re addressing the root cause of both problems: access.

Working with schools, community organizations, farmers, parents, and the government, we will ensure the long-term sustainability of these projects. Simultaneously, we’re growing the next generation of food systems professionals through hands-on experience, unparalleled to what they’d receive in a classroom or office. We expect FoodCorps alumni to go on to define the food landscape by becoming farmers, policymakers, educators and advocates.

Are the FoodCorps members going in the hardest areas to reach and have you identified those?

We’re planning to invest FoodCorps into communities of high need: rural, urban, and suburban school food systems that have children challenged with high rates of obesity and limited access to healthy foods. Through a competitive selection process, the FoodCorps planning team reviewed 108 host site proposals submitted from 39 states and the District of Columbia requesting a total of 512 service members and partnering with 1240 groups. It was pretty awe-inspiring.

You can view the ten sites here.  The ten selected host sites all possess proven records of success in improving the quality of school food, capacity to grow with FoodCorps across their region and compelling community need that service members will readily address.

It’s essential to know the collaboration origins and full team, which includes Curt Ellis, Cecily Upton, Crissie McMullan, Jerusha Klemperer and Ian Cheney. FoodCorps is the product of an 18-month planning process that has engaged more than 3,000 stakeholders. A cadre of organizations stepped up to support the nascent FoodCorps effort: Occidental College with the National Farm to School Network, Slow Food USA, The National Center for Appropriate Technology (operators of a model program in Montana), the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy Food and Society Fellows Program, and the documentary and advocacy organization Wicked Delicate.

When you think about the good food movement, think about how far we’ve come. The Obama Administration challenged us: “Prove you have a movement.” You know what, FoodCorps just proved we have a movement!

Who inspires you?

I have a deep passion for my work so I find inspiration in countless places. Some days it’s going to the grocery and seeing the same handful of ingredients processed into hundreds of unhealthy expensive products. Some days it’s looking at all the insulin vials in my refrigerator (my husband has Type I Diabetes). Or one of my favorite: planting a seed … it’s one of the most simplistic, but yet inspiring moments. My husband, Jeff, and I have been building our farm, Harvest Sun Farm, for the last couple of years. The farm is a real inspiration for me: I don’t just write and talk about growing good food for all, I farm every day, actually growing food.

The other inspirations are so many others in this field that I’ve met over the years. The farmers, teachers, advocates, legislators, bureaucrats … the people that make up our social fabric. And the children. Watching a child taste their first fresh carrot directly from the ground, that intense flavor, the dose of beta carotene, the valuing of the work that was put into growing that seed … there’s something so beautiful about watching a child experience and understand it so much better than many, it’s inspiring day in and out. Just when you asked me that question, all these faces come to mind and it gave me chills to think of my amazing food community and family.

Are you hopeful as you look to the future? What makes you hopeful?

Yes, I am absolutely hopeful. If we aren’t hopeful, what are we working toward? I think some days it can be exhausting when you look at regulations and how far we need to go with the Farm Bill and other policies, but I’m continuously hopeful that this is possible. That’s part of the reason why I believe so strongly in systems change, such as Farm to School and school gardens. More specifically with FoodCorps, we are teaching the next generation about the value of good food, and that gives me hope.

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