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Co-Founder and Program Director
“Debra Eschmeyer’s work for Farm to School has changed the landscape for thousands of students nationwide who are being served a bounty of fresh, healthy food grown by local and regional farms.”
– Naomi Starkman
When Debra Eschmeyer began her Food and Community fellowship with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in February 2009, she arrived “exploding with ideas,” recounts fellowship director Mark Muller. “I didn’t think it was possible for an Ohio farm girl to talk so much faster than the New Yorkers in the room.”
It was exactly that farm upbringing that nurtured Eschmeyer’s intense drive. “I’m a dairy farmer’s daughter,” she says. “Everyone works on the weekends and never takes a vacation.” After leaving the farm for college, Eschmeyer became involved in food policy work and was introduced to the Farm to School program, which brings food from local farms into school cafeterias.
Inspired, she created One Tray, a campaign that successfully lobbied Congress and the USDA to expand Farm to School programs. “I thought, This could be a win-win-win solution—why isn’t this happening everywhere?” recounts Eschmeyer.
The development of FoodCorps, which Eschmeyer co-founded with five other young food activists, was in many ways a response to that question. At the center of the organization is an AmeriCorps service program that matches young adults with school-based food organizations working in high-obesity, low-resource communities. “A lot of programs don’t need a ton of money—they need time, energy, and brainpower,” explains Eschmeyer. “That’s where FoodCorps comes in.”
The program launched this past August at 41 sites around the country. At each site members of the inaugural group of 50—selected from more than 1,200 applicants—are providing nutrition education, working to increase children’s access to healthy food in school cafeterias, and establishing or expanding school garden programs.
The beauty of FoodCorps is that it is, as Eschmeyer would say, a “win-win-win” for the communities, the schoolchildren, and the volunteer members, all of whom receive agriculture training at Growing Power, fellow Leadership Award recipient Will Allen’s organization. One of Eschmeyer’s hopes is that FoodCorps will help increase the number of young farmers in the U.S. She and her husband, Jeff, are doing their part as the owners of Harvest Sun Farm, where they grow organic produce on 13 acres of land in Ohio.
“Growing food for our community keeps me rooted in what’s practical,” Eschmeyer says, explaining that when she steps away from the soil it’s easy to get caught up in the polarizing politics of food systems work. “Too many times the food movement works on the fringes of liberal America. The food movement needs to be the purple movement. We need to be the eggplant.”
FoodCorps is exactly the type of program that Eschmeyer hopes will transcend the country’s political divide, and she credits the food movement’s pioneers with inspiring its creation.
“We’re doing this in concert with all the amazing people before us,” says Eschmeyer. “We are working on the wings of people like Alice Waters and Will Allen and Wendell Berry.” Those who know Eschmeyer, however, would say she’s not giving herself enough credit.
“When Debra sets her mind on something, look out,” says nutrition consultant Melinda Hemmelgarn. “Join her or get out of the way, because it’s going to happen.”
– Anya Hoffman