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The Leading Voices in Food

E57: How FoodCorps and Walmart are Driving Food Security in the US

Hosted by: Kelly Brownell (Duke)
November 7, 2019

Imagine you would like to address food, and food insecurity in particular, and could start with a blank slate. What kind of programs and practices would make sense given the incredible array of possibilities? Our guests today, Curt Ellis and Karrie Denniston have addressed this issue in their own work. Welcome to The Leading Voices in Food.

Curt Ellis was co-founder and CEO of FoodCorps, a national organization affiliated with AmeriCorps. Karrie Denniston serves as Senior Director of Sustainability with the Walmart Foundation.

Interview Summary

Imagine you would like to address food and food insecurity in particular and could start with a blank slate, what kind of programs and practices would make sense given the incredible array of possibilities? Our guests today, Curt Ellis and Karrie Denniston have addressed this issue in their own work. Welcome to The Leading Voices in Food. I’m Kelly Brownell, director of the world Food Policy Center at Duke University and professor of public policy at Duke. I’ll begin by introducing Curt Ellis, who was co-founder and CEO of FoodCorps, a national organization affiliated with AmeriCorps. He has received numerous awards for his work and is in my mind one of the most creative people anywhere working on food issues. Curt, it’s really nice to have you here.

Thanks so much for having me, Kelly.

The work of FoodCorps is something that I know personally because my daughter worked in Arkansas as part of the AmeriCorps and FoodCorps program, and I saw the transformative experience it had on her, but also the impact that the FoodCorps volunteers can have on the community. And I assume some of our listeners will know a lot about the organization and others less so. So could you please tell us what FoodCorps is all about?

Of course, our work at FoodCorps is an effort attempting to address the challenges of healthy food education and healthy food access for kids at real scale. And we currently support the daily work of 250 AmeriCorps food educators who are working in high poverty schools across 18 states to build school gardens, to introduce kids to new foods on the lunch line and to work with their school communities to build a school-wide culture of health.

In addition to that direct impact work that’s focused on healthy food education, FoodCorps is doing a new body of systemic work called reWorking Lunch, which seeks to improve the quality of school food at scale and unlock some of the ways in which the way school systems approach healthy food education and access have been stuck in old patterns for far too long. And in addition to those two efforts, we advocate for policies that are rooted in the evidence and that you can see in real life form when you come out to FoodCorps schools around the country, policies that have a potential to drive greater progress faster, in improving what kids eat in school, and what they learn about food there.

Our next guest, Karrie Denniston serves as Senior Director of Sustainability with the Walmart Foundation, and in this role manages the strategy and grant making for the foundation’s efforts to help create environmentally and socially sustainable supply chains globally. Prior to joining Walmart, Karrie served as a vice president of national programs at Feeding America and also worked as a policy analyst with USDA. Karrie, thank you so much for joining us.

Thank you so much for having me. It’s great to be here.

Why did the Walmart Foundation make food insecurity an important priority?

Thanks, Kelly, that’s a great question. At Walmart and the Walmart Foundation, first think about where we can make the biggest difference. And if you go back in history, Walmart was founded on the idea of helping to democratize access to things that people need in their everyday lives. That was the whole idea of Sam Walton opening a store in rural areas so that people could have affordable access and have that same access that living in a city would afford.

So today as the nation’s largest grocer, we’re continuing that legacy and providing access to safe and affordable food is one important way that we do that. So that’s an important backdrop. But also, we fundamentally believe in the importance of addressing hunger, food insecurity, and nutrition and its importance to society. This is a place where we have a lot of assets that we can contribute, even just going beyond philanthropy.

So if we think about the business side, what might that look like? Having low food prices. That looks like thinking about how do we reformulate product to make it healthier so that people can access that. It looks like us donating any excess food that’s coming through that may not be sellable but is still quality and could still be utilized. And it also means that engaging our suppliers and customers to helping them understand issues of food insecurity and how they can help.

We utilize our philanthropy to try to help increase the capacity of the food banking system, the charitable system, access to federal benefit programs. How do we make that system help people get food when and where they need it? So we support initiatives to increase things like access to emergency food programs, or things like benefits, like the SNAP program, the WIC program, children’s meal programs in schools, which Curt has a lot of experience with. And we also help to think about how can we advance nutrition literacy and skills.

Curt, if you think back to when you founded FoodCorps back in 2010, there were lots of things one could have done. Why did you choose to focus on children and then schools in particular?

One in six kids today is growing up in a food insecure household where they don’t reliably have enough healthy food at home. And one in three kids across our country is already showing early signs of diet-related disease and we know that these diseases discriminate and we know that one in two of our kids of color are expected to develop type 2 diabetes during their lifetimes. And for FoodCorps and the five folks who I co-founded this organization with back in 2010, it was clear to us that our nation’s school system represents the best chance we have as a country to reach kids when they are setting their lifelong eating habits in place and school systems represent one of the most powerful leverage points for unlocking larger change in our food system as a whole.

There are seven times as many school cafeterias in this country as there are McDonald’s franchises. And if we could only turn those school cafeterias into places where every child is getting great high quality food every day and where the supply chain that serves those school meals protects the lands and waters that we depend on, that could be a powerful transformation.

For a company as large as Walmart, is this caring for example about the welfare of the farmers and caring about sustainable practices and things like this just considered a good business? Is it part of the ethical nature of the company? Is it because customers care about it? Why be doing these things?

Yes to all of that. I think the principle of shared value first is that if we don’t actually do those things, it’s very hard for us to run business in the long term. If we aren’t thinking about the sustainability of supply chains and the practices that are in place, and we aren’t thinking about how we can have that, we are not going to have a supply in the future, right? So that’s important. So it is good business and it is important to business.

That is coupled with it is also a place where we can have a leadership position and help advance those issues forward. And customers do care and they should care.

Well, given the enormous scope of the Walmart customer base and the stores all over the world, why did you decide to partner with FoodCorps?

Well, one objective of our philanthropy is to help improve people’s confidence in their ability to consistently consume healthier foods. So we decided to support FoodCorps for a couple of reasons. First was the approach. Nutrition education itself, it’s an incredibly valuable tool and it has an importance in trying to help advance people’s ability to understand what’s healthy and how to make choices.

But FoodCorps also developed their program with the belief that nutrition education had to be delivered in context. So if the food quality in the cafeteria and the overall school environment was sending a different signal to the kids after they just had this great nutrition education lesson, that was going to be really hard to maintain those healthier choices. We were also really impressed because FoodCorps thought about, and I’d be curious for Curt to comment on this, they thought about learning from day one.

I really feel like FoodCorps wants to know if their efforts are making a difference. They’re willing to be creative and they’re willing to take some risks in figuring out some paths forward. For us, because we were also trying to figure out this balance, this important question of what can you do at scale in a really structured and thoughtful way, and what has to be built at the local community and really contextualize to a particular location. FoodCorps was really thinking about that and wrestling with those same questions. So we were really excited to be a part of that journey with them.

So Curt, can you explain how the partnership with Walmart is working? What’s actually occurring on the ground because of it?

Yeah. Over the five years that FoodCorps has been able to partner with the Walmart Foundation, so far we have scaled up our work quite significantly. So a big piece of what we’ve been able to do has just been to reach more kids and more schools with the kind of hands-on food education that we know make a really powerful difference in what children eat. This year, FoodCorps is reaching 170,000 students in 350 high poverty schools, thanks in really significant part to the partnership we have with Walmart.

The relationship we have with the foundation has also enabled us to bring a strong equity lens to the AmeriCorps service members who we are recruiting and supporting in their work in the field. The Walmart Foundation has made it possible for us to increase what we pay our core members well above what AmeriCorps requires of us.

That means we’re able to attract core members who come from limited resource backgrounds themselves or members who themselves grew up struggling with hunger and food insecurity, grew up struggling with the realities of a food system that did not serve them healthy food every day. It makes a huge difference in how effective our core members are and how much authenticity we can show up with in the communities where we serve.

And the Walmart Foundation has made it possible for FoodCorps to bring our work to places that don’t have the kind of philanthropic supporter base that a New York City or a Bay Area has. At least a third of our service members are in rural communities and small town settings that don’t typically get reached by a national organization. But for FoodCorps, serving native and indigenous communities thoughtfully and well, serving communities like Flint, Michigan, serving communities like the Arkansas Delta and the Mississippi Delta and rural areas in North Carolina, these are huge priorities for us as an organization and they’re the kind of priorities that are very hard to achieve without the kind of high trust partnership that we have with the Walmart Foundation.

Curt, your mission is so noble and important and I also admire you and your colleagues being willing to have an objective evaluation done to learn and then to move on to other paths that may be more productive than what was going on in the past. Can you give an example of somewhere along the way where you learned something from evaluation that surprised you and changes the way you did things?

Yeah, absolutely. So we did a big external evaluation project with Columbia University Teacher’s College and the Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy there. And one of the findings of that evaluation work was that the real magic happens in food and nutrition education when that approach is hands-on. There’s a really powerful shift that happens in what kids learn about food and more importantly, what their behaviors are towards healthy food, fruit and vegetables in particular when they engage directly in a school garden and taste a beet pulled raw out of the ground with the dirt still on it, or when they cook in their classroom and learn the skills and build the agency to make a salad dressing themselves, and a cook our recipe for their family at home. We know that kind of thing works because supermarket in Oregon told us they ran out of rutabagas the week FoodCorps taught the rutabaga lesson.

That kind of hands-on approach to learning about food is a dramatic shift from what I certainly got in my nutrition education as a kid, which was an authority figure pointing at a government poster on the wall. And I think that old model is one that we’ve kind of kept going in far too many schools. But because of this finding coming out of the research we did with Columbia University, which showed that when kids get more of that hands-on food education, they triple the fruits and vegetables in their school meals.

FoodCorps has oriented much of our policy agenda that we’re currently working on in the upcoming child nutrition reauthorization towards trying to stand up programming that would put food educators into school meal programs around the country, because we recognized if we can give more kids that kind of hands-on food education, we’ll suddenly be able to take different advantage of the $18 billion our country already invests in putting food on lunch trays for our nation’s kids and we can get that healthy food we’re putting on lunch trays and the fruits and vegetables in particular eaten by more and more kids if they just get the right introduction to it.

So Karrie, from your perspective, what do you see is the value of your work with FoodCorps and what sort of outcomes are you seeing?

It’s really, it’s interesting, Curt listening to you talk about what you sort of see as some of the value and the outcomes. My list would be similar. I think of it in a couple of areas. One has been the learnings on the direct programmatic work. We are seeing that there are practices that are working and some that aren’t, that we shouldn’t be doing anymore. And in that kind of learning about what are the outcomes that are being driven and what are the different techniques and experiences that can be created more at scale to try and support that. And I think Curt, what as you were sort of talking about, then how do we take that to a more structural level? Whether that’s through policy or other kinds of mechanisms or embedding that kind of learning across multiple programs, these are really valuable insights that go beyond one organization and one donor, but really start to have implications across the entirety of the field.

The other that Curt touched on that I do want to highlight that has really advanced our thinking is how intentional FoodCorps has been about things like hiring, and about diversity, equity and inclusion. Their approach of thinking about recruiting talent, training talent and having that be of the community is incredibly thoughtful and they’ve been very honest about what does that take. What does that take in terms of stipends? What does that take in terms of support for core members over time?

But I think the organization has also not just stopped with frontline. They’ve also internalized training across their staff in the organization. I would say as a sector, and whether that’s food, security support organizations, nutrition education organizations, or really as a nonprofit sector, struggling with issues about how we think about diversity, equity and inclusion in our own organizations and our programmatic work and in the services being provided is something that is very difficult and that the FoodCorps has really been leading the way in starting to put some ideas on the table, learning from those. So that’s informed us, it’s informed the field. That’s really changed the way we thought about the work as well.

What sort of training skills do you think are important for the next generation to help tap with food and nutrition and food insecurity issues?

Kelly, I love this question because we speak a lot with organizations about how are they thinking about preparing for the future. So the first is that I think we recognize that the needs of families who are experiencing food insecure, they’re not static. They’re not static in any way. This is a really simple example, but think about when food banks used to hand out information about where pantries were and what their hours were, they handed out paper lists. Today, what’s the first thing you would do? You’d go online and you’d do a search. Where is my local place to get help, right? That’s an example of how the changing nature and expectation around how people would find information and resources.

Now take that to a bigger scale. That means the choices, like do we build a physical location to provide services? Do we offer mobile services? Do we need to explore more on demand kinds of services? Same with nutrition education. Is that hands-on experience the thing that matters? How much can digital play a role? This all has implications for how our responses need to be built for these kinds of issues.

So I think our future leaders are going to have to understand and think about how to apply a more human-centered design approach to figuring out how our organizations need to be structured in the future. We need to start with the individuals who are experiencing the situations and build from them as opposed to starting from the structures that we have in place.

The second area that I think about is about how technology can be applied to the problems of response. How do we use data? How do we better understand who’s in need? How do we better target responses? How do we support shared learning about outcomes? I think about future skills for this sector, applying things like machine learning. How is that going to help us be faster and more targeted in the approach?

And then probably the third thing I would offer is not to underestimate personal competencies that we need in the leaders of the future. This is incredibly hard work. It’s complex, it’s important, it really, really matters. I really think about the kinds of creativity and the passion that’s going to be needed from future leaders but also a strong ability to be self-reflected. And as we talk about self-reflection, I think Curt talked about this willingness to pivot away from things that aren’t working. If it’s not working as well as it could, we have to be brave, and that bravery is really important.

Thanks for that description. Curt, I was going to ask you the same question. But as Karrie was speaking just now, it made me think of another question that I’d like to ask you instead. Communities often are quite distressful about outside organizations and people coming in to help them, and for a good reason. There’s been a long history of this happening without much benefit and the communities are worried about the motives of the people coming in. They just want to get their research done or they want to do their philanthropy and feel good about it. There are a lot of reasons communities have this distrust. How do you address this? Because you’re in so many communities of need and I’m sure trust must be a big issue.

Trust is the foundation on which all of this work rests and for anyone who’s spent meaningful time in your own kid’s school or another school setting, you know how relational those environments really are at the end of the day. And it makes me feel like Karrie was spot on in saying a big piece of what is needed in this next wave of work given the ecosystem we all find ourselves in is the ability to be nimble and adaptive and responsive to local context.

And so for FoodCorps, that begins with a very strong priority on recruiting folks who work for us, whether it’s in our AmeriCorps program as frontline food educators or the folks who are in our field offices leading the kind of district and principal level relationships and working with other organizations and allies and policy makers around the state, begins with recruiting local talent who come in with expertise and relationships and informal knowledge as well as formal knowledge about the ecosystem in which they are operating.

But at an organizational level, it requires us to be placed-based. And it’s a tricky thing for a national nonprofit like FoodCorps to strike the right balance between enough consistency from place to place that we get all the benefits of replicability and scalability and measurability and we can tell a powerful story to policy makers, to our partners, and have, what is most important, which is adaptive responses to local context, the fact that climate and culture and food culture play out so differently in the Navajo nation from how they play out in rural Maine, from how they play out in New York City. That adaptability is what gives you relevance and it’s what actually makes your work make a difference.

We work really hard to lean in on the place-based side of that and the culturally relevant side of that. I do think our nation’s school meal programs in large part are still trying to solve the problems of the last century. The modern school meal program has its origins at a time when we were trying to get the surplus commodities, we were growing on our nation’s farms used up by our school system and try to make sure that folks going off to the battlefield in our country were not malnourished and we have a different food landscape today, one that needs to put public health at its center and needs to recognize the fact that in today’s incredibly diverse America. Food is one of the best tools we have to connect across lines of cultural difference and come together around a shared table to affirm our values.

And I do believe there’s a way we can have school food be an engine, not just for kids being well nourished, but kids feeling really, truly cared for and valued and affirmed in who they are and where they come from.

I also would say that there’s been a sea change in what young adults are interested in around food. And now everywhere I go there’s more and more young people raising their hands saying, “How do I get involved in FoodCorps? How do I donate a year or two of my life to this cause of building a more just and healthful and sustainable food system?” And that is totally thrilling to see.

Karrie, do you share Curt’s optimism?

I do share that optimism. There is an incredible amount of passion. I’m seeing a lot of ignition around what it means to have positive food experiences and how people are relating to food and valuing food within their communities. Food is the most personal thing we do. It’s a decision that we make multiple times a day. It’s cultural, it’s our families, it’s…we gather around food, we celebrate with food, and we celebrate our communities, our heritage, all around this core convening factor. I am seeing where the value of doing that and putting that in the center is starting to become more and more important, and that is really encouraging for the structures and the processes and the systems and addressing some of these issues. I think that gives me a lot of hope that we have this very personal base in which to build.

Given that food insecurity is a major problem in the US and around the world, despite years of efforts to try to help address it, what do you think are the most important things that need to be done?

I think first starting with most people just simply don’t realize how pervasive food insecurity really is. I often will give people the fact that we look at data and food insecurity exists in every county in America. This is neighbors, friends, family, and that means that we have to think about solutions at a community level and at scale. And it’s really complex. At the core, I think food security and food insecurity is about instability. So that might mean housing. That might mean employment. That might mean health. That might mean a very personal family situation. And it also isn’t about a static aspect, right? A person isn’t food insecure forever. They’re insecure often for a moment in time or a few months or some years. For some people, it’s more of pervasive over a lifetime.

But people are cycling in and out of need. And I think those are all dynamics and aspects that are important to understand. And I think that leads us to two reasons that it continues to be such a pervasive issue. So first, there’s still an incredible stigma associated with people who are struggling to have access to healthy food. And it’s difficult to ask for help when needed because of that. And second, because it can be so cyclical, it also means that our systems have to make it seamless for people to be able to ask for help when they need it. So it’s not easy to navigate a benefit application. It is not easy to figure out, “Where do I go? What’s going to be the best place for me,” especially when a family is struggling with other stressors in life.

So setting aside more of the structural questions around things like housing and healthcare. I think there’s some practical short term things that we can really do. We can prioritize helping to reduce stigma, to demystify what food security really is, and to assess where these systems that we have in place may be putting up barriers for people that don’t need to be there, that they could be accessing food easier.

You know, in our part, well, we think about our own work. We’re still going to address these issues at scale. And for context over the last five years, we’ve helped to provide about 4 billion meals to people in need, right? So scale matters for sure. That is something that needs to happen. But as we think about those lessons and the learnings and some things we can immediately do, we’re also thinking differently about how do we prioritize investing in programs in the geographies and for communities that are disproportionately impacted by these issues. You know, Curt shared some of the stats in the beginning for communities of color, for rural geographies. There are areas where we need to have a more targeted approach to develop better tools to address stigma and better tools to reduce some of those system barriers so that people can get access to their needs met in the communities where they’re at.

So thank you, Karrie. Curt, what are your thoughts on that?

At FoodCorps, we’re really focused on how do we leverage the scale and reach of our nation’s school system to make sure that the 30 million kids a day who are spending half their waking hours and eating often half their daily calories in school learn what healthy food is in a reliably effective way and eat healthy food every day in the meals their schools provide.

And our sense is that systemic change that we could catalyze across the school system will have huge long-term impacts on the trajectories of kids who have the chance to fulfill their potential and fulfill their dreams in school and in life and also have a huge impact on how our food system as a whole works there.

But I would say if we want to change our school system to better address the needs of the kids who are walking through their school doors food insecure, the kids who on snow days don’t get enough food to eat, we have to change some of the stuck mindsets and mental models that have kind of been holding our schools in the place where they’ve been around food for so long.

And really I think we have a school system that very often sees food as a cost center to be minimized instead of an impact center waiting to be unlocked. And when we treat it as a cost center to be minimized, we minimize the amount of time kids have to learn about healthy food. We minimize the amount of time kids have to eat healthy food in their lunch rooms, and we minimize the investment we make in the quality of food we’re serving to kids in school, and we minimize the attention we pay to the lunch ladies and gents and the district level school food leadership who are on the front lines of actually getting healthy food to our kids.

The result of that is a food system that devalues food in school and leaves a whole lot of kids feeling unsatisfied and unfulfilled and being unnourished by that system. And I believe there’s another way to approach it, which is to treat it as an impact center and a value center and show what happens when we use the power of food to make sure every child gets the nourishment they need to thrive and every child gets that feeling that only food can give you of knowing you are valued and cared for by the adults around you.


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