Is Food Education the Key to Building Healthier, More Equitable Communities?

Social Justice

FoodCorps service member Emily Reckard on training the next generation of food justice advocates.

Kale, they say, is a superfood. But just how super? To Emily Reckard, its powers practically know no bounds. Because in addition to its vitamin-packing, brain-enhancing, waist-slimming abilities, it holds the potential to fundamentally transform schools, neighborhoods, and even the attention spans of some unruly first graders.

As a recent graduate of the nonprofit FoodCorps, which aims to change children’s eating habits by providing more opportunities to eat healthy foods like fruit and vegetables, Reckard has seen firsthand the social benefits of introducing schoolchildren to the world of horticulture. FoodCorps is a culturally and geographically responsive program that promotes a school-wide culture of health by implementing hands-on learning and providing healthy school meals, as well as driving change at a systems level, from school districts to supply chains to state and national politics. In 2017, Reckard was placed at Mundo Verde, one of the 352 schools that FoodCorps works with nationwide. At the bilingual charter elementary in Washington, D.C., Reckard oversaw development of the school’s garden (filled with kale, of course) and implemented a food-focused curriculum that introduced students to gardening, cooking, and healthy eating.

But as Reckard soon found, the benefits of a schoolyard garden extended far beyond just nutritional know-how. Emerson Collective spoke with Reckard, who has since been hired by Mundo Verde as its first-ever full-time school garden coordinator, about her experience.

Your role as a FoodCorps service member sounds incredibly multifaceted—like, you’re not just teaching a course on healthy eating, right?

Through FoodCorps [and now as a full-time employee] I co-teach classes in the garden, help develop cooking and garden class curriculum, run family gardening days, and manage several student clubs, from the garden market, where students sell the produce they grow, to working with a group of first- and second-grade students learning about medicinal herbs and food.

What do you think the impact of this food education has been at your school?

It can be hard to see the big picture, but I do get to see progress in the small things, the things students say. I actually started writing them down. Students have told me how excited they are for garden club. They said, This is more fun than playing! One student told me he was growing 10 plants at home. One day after we harvested some microgreens and planted some snap peas, a student came up to me and said, “This is the first time I’ve ever planted a seed before.” It’s those small moments.

And that has wide-reaching benefits, it seems.

FoodCorps gave me a lot of freedom to say, “Within my role, this is what I’m interested in focusing on.” So I spent a lot of time doing horticulture therapy—viewing and using the garden as a means of therapy. There’s so much research on the benefits of green space on mental health. I noticed last year there were a few students who, during class, had a really hard time. It was usually behavioral issues, so either during lunch or after school, I would work with them in the garden and talk and we’d do different garden activities together. Whether that was taking care of the worm bin or chopping up carrots and handing them out to students, it was really effective. I had a student take off their shoes and throw them—they just couldn’t calm down—but then we went outside and went to the garden to smell the herbs and pet the chicken, and he was able to calm down and focus and go back inside and join the class.

Is your background in this kind of work?

I was home-schooled growing up, so I really had no exposure to even being in a school. I love working with kids, though. In college I worked at the botanical gardens doing environmental education, and I worked at another farm that had a program for kids and teenagers, so I had experience working with kids, but always in alternative programs. In some ways it makes a lot of sense, because even though I’m a teacher and I’m working at a school, I’m still an outdoor education teacher; I’m not teaching directly in the classroom.

Did this program help you develop in your career?

FoodCorps definitely served as a bridge for me [to this job]. I finished school in 2017 with a degree in environmental studies and anthropology from the University of North Carolina, and then I started as a FoodCorps service member that summer, and then at the end of the year I was able to continue my work here as a school employee. It felt like a natural transition. I think FoodCorps has also impacted my career by furthering my desire to lift up voices of people who are already established within the community. I think so often, nonprofits and external organizations enter communities with the intent to help, but have their own agenda and definition of what “helping” looks like. So it’s important to enter a new community with a humble mindset, listening to the needs and desires of the group. I feel it is my responsibility to work to empower people already within a community and to make myself replaceable.