A revolution in food and service

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<p>Jane Lee, with Food Corps, introduces a class of first graders at Kohala Elementary School to olena, or tumeric, in the outdoor classroom located in the school garden. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)</p>
<p>Julia Nemoto, Food Corps. volunteer, works in the Malaai Culinary Garden at Waimea Middle School with Aukai Aipia, 13. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)</p>
Julia Nemoto, Food Corps. volunteer, plants seeds in the Malaai Culinary Garden at Waimea Middle School with 13-year-old Aukai Aipia. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
<p>Jane Lee, Food Corps. volunteer, teaches first grade students the rules of the Discovery Garden at Kohala Elementary School. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)</p>

For most of us, when we hear the words “food” and “service” used together in the same sentence, our minds dredge up memories of institutional meals like meatloaf and canned peas ladled out onto plastic cafeteria trays.

For service members in the new FoodCorps program in Hawaii, the context couldn’t be more different. For these optimistic young people, their work here is all about healthy, locally grown food, and also about service to the community.

Just like the young people who responded to President John F. Kennedy’s call to change the world through service in Peace Corps, those involved with FoodCorps are idealistic, hoping to improve the health of our nation’s youth by revolutionizing the local food system. According to the FoodCorps website, the program is jointly funded through public and private sponsors, and recruits talented leaders for a year of paid public service building healthy school food environments in high-obesity, limited-resource communities.

This summer, eight FoodCorps service members were hired to spend a year working with public schools in Hawaii, helping to teach children about where their food comes from, engage them in hands-on work in school gardens, and eventually, to help introduce the healthy foods from those gardens into cafeterias and onto students’ plates.

Two North Hawaii schools were assigned FoodCorps members to work with their garden programs this year. Julia Nemoto is working with Waimea Middle School students at the Mala’ai Garden, and Jane Lee is at Kohala Elementary School.

“I wanted to be a part of the working goal to increase food sustainability in North Kohala and share knowledge and love for the aina with which I have been so blessed,” said Lee. “Sustainable progress must happen organically at the grassroots level, not by a top-down approach.”

“There is a lot of excitement here about this program,” said Amelia Pedini, FoodCorps fellow and coordinator for the program in the state. “People are stepping forward, and are interested in being involved.”

Pedini previously worked in a similar program, as a Food Cadre service member in the Americorps program in New Mexico. She found that in that region of the country, there was a stigma to being a farmer because many immigrants saw agricultural workers as the lowest rank in society.

“Compared to New Mexico, this program is welcomed here,” she said. “People understand why we need this project, and it is culturally relevant. We’re not starting anything new here. We’re supporting what has already been in place.”

“Our biggest issue is getting kids to eat local food,” said Pedini. “Because of the statewide public school system in Hawaii, there are policies in place that get in the way of change happening,” she said.

“Our long-term goal is to be putting positions in place that will build capacity within these communities to create jobs,” she said. “We would like to expand the program in the state by recruiting new sites and scaling up.”

For the FoodCorps service members, their work is more than a job.

“Service is a way of thinking about what you do,” said Pedini. “I need to be helping people, otherwise I don’t feel fulfilled.”

“We get to support and serve alongside the real champions: the school faculty, community members and the keiki,” said Lee.

For more information about the FoodCorps Hawaii program, visit The Kohala Center website at http://www.kohalacenter.org/schoolgardenhui/foodcorps.html.