“You take the worst behaved, most struggling kid in a group and you stick a chicken in their lap and something just lights up within them,” said Daniel Rennie, site coordinator of the Roberts Farm Science and Agricultural Learning Center in Norway, where he teaches hundreds of fifth- and sixth-graders about food and farming each year.
The 165-acre nature preserve is home to six unheated hoop houses, an acre of raised beds, an experimental hydroponic and aquaponic system and a flock of laying hens. Students in the Oxford Hills School District work with Rennie to grow vegetables and flowers and raise the chickens. The students sell 15 pounds of greens a week to the school system during the warmer months and sell the eggs through the Fare Share Co-op.
None of this existed three years ago when Rennie arrived as the district’s first FoodCorps volunteer. After serving the district for two years in that position, he landed his current grant-funded job. FoodCorps member Kyle Plummer now helps Rennie run the center.
FoodCorps is a national program that is part of the AmeriCorps community service organization. The program began three years ago and now operates in 15 states with 125 service members. In Maine, FoodCorps members are working with schoolchildren in 10 communities where 50 percent or more of the students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch.
Maine was chosen as one of the original FoodCorps sites because of the state’s interest in and support of the farm-to-school movement.
FoodCorps aims to teach children about healthful eating, expand school-based gardens and increase locally grown food in school cafeterias. The Maine program is overseen by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and funded by the Maine Commission for Community Service, with 20 percent of the funding coming from the federal AmeriCorps program.
Service members are volunteers who receive a modest living stipend, about $15,000 a year, plus health insurance.
“We got 75 applications last year for our 10 positions,” said Laura Budde, who serves as the FoodCorps fellow for Maine and helps coordinate the program’s work in the state.
Nationally, the program received 1,100 applications for 125 spots last year. The program is currently accepting applications through March 30 for the next academic year.
While Rennie was already living in Maine when he applied to become a FoodCorps member, Budde came to Maine from Minnesota by way of the University of Michigan.
“I have a BS in environmental science,” Budde said. “So I was coming at it from an environmental perspective. We also have folks focused on public education and some come with a culinary background.”
In addition to the program in Norway, FoodCorps members work with Cultivating Community in Portland, Rippling Waters Organic Farm in Standish, St. Mary’s Nutrition Center in Lewiston, Healthy Communities of the Capital Area in Gardiner, UMaine Cooperative Extension in Knox, Lincoln, Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, Regional School Unit #3 in Liberty, Greater Somerset Public Health Collaborative in Skowhegan and One Community with Healthy Acadia in Machias.
“We really like to emphasize that our members are going in and bringing new energy and ideas, but we’re building on the resources that already exist in the community,” said Budde, who was one of the first FoodCorps service members in the state before she accepted her current job. “One aim of FoodCorps is to generate the next generation of leaders in the good food movement.”
Budde hopes to become a full-fledged farmer one day, and as part of her FoodCorps fellowship is compiling a beginning farmer resource guide for other FoodCorps members.
“In general, it always comes back to the kids,” Budde said. “You can almost see their brains working and realizing what you eat and what you put into your body is going to have an effect on how your body feels.”
Back in Norway, Rennie said the school district is considering developing a program that will allow middle school students to spend one full trimester working on the farm, where teachers can tailor lessons in everything from math to language arts around the plants and animals.
As Rennie points out, the aspects of the farm that interest kids can be surprising.
“Some kids get excited about sun gold cherry tomatoes, but they are more excited about the enormous horn worms we struggle with,” Rennie said. “They run around looking for them and then feed them to the chickens. That’s what I’m really reaching for.”
Avery Yale Kamila is a freelancer who lives in Portland, where she writes about health food and is excited to see the rapid growth of Maine’s farm-to-school movement. She can be reached at [email protected]