Faces & Visions of the Food Movement: Debra Eschmeyer

Debra is one of the founders of FoodCorps and the Communications and Outreach Director of the National Farm to School Network, which is a program of the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College. Debra is also an Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy Food and Society Fellow. Debra’s previous non-profit work spans the globe in the humanitarian, conservation, sustainable agriculture, and food justice realms. She works from her fifth-generation family farm in Ohio, where she continues her passion for organic farming raising fruits and vegetables.

CE: What issues have you been focused on?

DE: It ranges from food policy, Farm to School, school gardens, school food, rural sociology, obesity, dairy policy, commodity policy, food justice… basically from seed to stomach. The whole gamut.

CE: What inspires you to do this work?

DE: I am a dairy farmer’s daughter and given that there are fewer than 60,000 dairy farmers in the United States, not many people can really understand what that means. But, I grew up with a dairy chip on my shoulder, watching how working for this food system is hard work and when you see that it’s broken even after all of that hard work, that’s frustrating.

When I went to college, I wanted nothing to do with farming. I wanted to save the world, of course, but with a salary and paid vacation because farming is a 24/7 job and Mother Nature is in charge of your paycheck no matter how hard you work.

I undertook humanitarian and conservation work and the more I learned the more I realized that it all ties to sustenance and how that relates to culture. When I was working for The Rotary Foundation in India, the underlying threat was to their ownership of seeds and food sovereignty. In D.C. when I worked for Conservation International, it was about how harmful slash and burn techniques were infringing on ecosystem hotspots, thus killing endangered species. It all comes back to how food relates to civil society. I thought, ‘who am I kidding?’ I had to go back to the farm. When I was living in D.C., I also worked for the National Family Farm Coalition and worked for a small sustainable farm, and then my husband and I decided we wanted to walk the walk on what we believed about food and rural communities. So, my husband and I bought a fifth generation family farm from his side of the family in our hometown in Ohio. I have continued to work on Farm to School, which I believe is the best snapshot of a community based food system, while also working to grow our farm.

CE: What inspired Food Corps?

DE: All the great work of existing Farm to School and school garden programs and the need to conquer obesity in children inspired FoodCorps, and it is really exciting. The ultimate goal is to increase the health and prosperity of children while investing in the next generation of farmers. FoodCorps was developed to answer one of the consistent queries I hear, which is “Oh, we love Farm to School and we love school gardens, but our budgets are tight and we just don’t have the sweat equity and the labor to pull it off.” Enter FoodCorps.

The seeds for FoodCorps as a program sprouted from many minds other than my own including Curt Ellis, Cecily Upton, Crissie McMullan, and Jerusha Kemplerer, which is now the five member planning team working to get Food Corps members on the ground in fall 2011. I attribute some of FoodCorps developing from more than just an idea to the IATP Food and Society Fellowship; I am in class VII of Fellows. The Fellows were in a meeting brainstorming, and I said I wanted to develop a FarmerCorps. Curt Ellis, class VI Fellow, was in the room and his mind was plotting the same. So, we had a meeting in D.C. last year in July to develop a FarmerCorps to help create the next generation of farmers. The idea quickly morphed into Food Corps: putting AmeriCorps members to work with Farm to School and school gardens. The time is ripe with opportunities like Let’s Move and The Edward M. Kennedy Serve American Act that passed in 2009; the Act grows the service members in AmeriCorps from 75,000 people to 250,000 by 2017.

I want FoodCorps to be the Habitat of Humanity of school food.

CE: What’s your overall vision?

DE: Although my focus may change day to day by what brings me passion, by what drives me to make change, the main reason I do this work is to make safe, healthy, delicious food available to everyone. And, to help people see farming as a viable profession, that it’s a beautiful, honorable act to work with nature for the benefit of society. Through all I do, whether writing or farming or advocacy, I want to restore the connection between food, community, land and place.

CE: What books and/or blogs are you reading right now?

DE: The blogs I read regularly include Civil Eats, Obama FoodoRama, Ethicurian, La Vida Locavore, Eco-Centric, Grist, Meat Poultry.com, Farm Policy, The Progressive Farmer, AgriNet Radio, Agri News, and Pork Magazine. I like to make sure I’m looking at the right and the left so that I don’t silo myself. For example, I listen to Rush Limbaugh and Rachel Maddow. It doesn’t matter if you’re wearing a Sarah Palin 2012 t-shirt or that you’re an Obama devotee, everyone should get behind Farm to School and improving school lunch and the overall food system.

On my bed stand, I’m re-reading Collapse by Jared Diamond, and also re-reading My Antonia since I’m back to the land again. Free for All by Janet Poppendieck, Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl … and of course, two Wendell Berry books. The History of School Lunch is also open. I’m a rotational grazer in reading.

CE: Who’s in your community?

DE: My community is very close knit and extremely broad, because I live in a rural community of less than 900 people but at the same time I do national work and my employer is Occidental College (in LA). So, I include those I work with everyday, virtually, as well as those physically around me. Because of technology, I can have a breadth and a depth of connections and that has liberated me to have an organic farm flanked by soy and wheat fields in the middle of Ohio. But all of what we do comes down to relationships. Relationships create the strength and unity to build a movement—whether it is a direct relationship to the land in planting a seed or meeting the Food Service Director who controls what your baby will eat for the next 13 years.

CE: What are your commitments?

DE: Definitely to my family and my land and to my work (food systems) and between those I try to strike a balance. I actually just moved back from D.C. because I wanted to rebalance more towards my land and family.

Now I’m trying to strike a balance between our farm, and Food Corps and the National Farm to School Network.

CE: What are your goals?

DE: I want Farm to School programs active all over the country (we are in all 50 states now!) enabling every child to have access to nutritious food while simultaneously benefiting the community and local farmer with a consistent market. The lunchroom provides an opportunity for a classroom without racial and economic class barriers to overcome the injustice of poverty and food insecurity. I want FoodCorps to be in every state in 10 years. And that people see it as a green job, a way to work in community.

Part of my goals is that I’m always grounded in what works, what I call groundtruthing. I want to make sure what I’m promoting is feasible, that it works for the budget, the body, the palette, the planet…and is sustainable and viable.

CE: What does change look like to you?

DE: Change varies as there’s policy change, movements change, etc. Change would be apparent in how the average person defines a farmer – that growing your own food is the norm, not some hippie or fringe thing. That students at Brown, Yale, Xavier and community college alike see farming as the job they want to do. Successful change is when Jaime Oliver comes back to the states at 45, and a kid can identify a carrot and a tomato. Change is when we measure ‘good food work’ in five, 10, 15, 20 years, we’re on the path to reclaiming our future. That American food is delicious fresh food. I want people to visit the U.S. and see a divine culinary culture beyond the Fast Food Nation.

For policy change, it’s going to take time so in 30 years I hope the current Farm Bill has morphed into legislation that truly benefits all people from consumer to farmer. We need to make policy makers look at farm and food policy through a new metric—nutrition per acre should be just as important as bushel per acre. Our society and health depends on it.

Also, we need to immediately bend the trend on the increasing rate of diabetes. Just the fact that we have $218 billion in diabetes costs every year, when just giving people the tools to eat right could prevent it is astounding.

Change is that we all have opportunity to eat and enjoy food that is wholesome in both taste and its path from field to table. That will be made real though policy, through consumer education. Change is when people see the power they have through their food choices

CE: Regarding the practicalities of enacting change, what planning is involved? What kind of outreach?

DE: In my role, it takes every definition of outreach. We sometimes rely too heavily on tools like Facebook and Twitter, but if we can text message our way to a healthy culture, let’s do it. We need a diversified outreach strategy including old-fashioned town hall meetings. We need to sit down and have dinner with policy makers and kindergarteners alike and explain what this means to have real food.

We need to work in all different segments. It takes everyone knowing they are empowered to do this. It takes equal responsibility from going to the grocery store to the ballot box, we are responsible for the outcome.

CE: What projects are affiliated with yours?

DE: My projects include Food Corps, OneTray, the National Farm to School Network. Partners include grassroots groups to national organizations, like National PTA, USDA, School Food FOCUS, FFA, SNA and an endless novel of acronyms.

CE: What projects and people have you got your eye on or are you impressed by?

DE: This emerging reporting group, FERN. The idea is to get good food journalists out there, getting paid to do investigative pieces on the food system.

REAL, a new non-profit headed by Anim Steele. The group he is working on creating is really terrific and exciting. The organization will essentially have a whole new tech platform for youth between 14 and 40 to connect local food systems work into what’s happening nationally—politically and in the community.

I’m following everything Let’s Move. It’s amazing to digest how this Administration is taking advantage of all that is social media, especially with an initiative that is so closely tied to my work.

CE: Where do you see the state of agriculture/food policy in the next 5-10 years? Is real policy change a real possibility?

DE: I see strategic and small changes in the next five to10 years. Small local food initiatives building up from what we destroyed in the last 50 years, which will take a lot of hard work and perseverance. I appreciate the steps the current USDA is taking and believe that we will be reaping the true impact of their work for years to come.

More Farm to School, more school gardens, educating that next generation of consumers that will then already have the habits, the taste buds, the palette so that it’s easier to talk policy with them because they grew up with a school wellness committee and their corner store sold local fresh greens. Essentially, access, if food policy can focus on improved access for everyone to good food, then we can have more and better case studies and a groundswell of people to build on for real change. And, we can start thinking more optimistically and systemically.

CE: What does the food movement need to do, be or have to be more effective?

DE: Power. And to get power, we need more educated voices, different voices, and more diversity in age and color. We need to be everywhere: rural, urban, suburban. The successful meeting of food leaders in the future will have a racially, economically, and age diverse attendance– a serious diversity of voices from all sides of the table bringing a diversity of cultural and class baggage, but still singing the same tune. We must also engage with those in the food and agriculture world on all scales of agriculture from small to large if we are going to create real change. I try to focus on outreach to all sizes of agriculture in my work.

CE: What would you want to be your last meal on earth?

DE: It totally ranges by season, but if it was a last meal, it would be surrounded by friends and family – that would be a huge part of it tasting good. I would have a similar meal to the Harvest Birthday Celebration my husband organized for me last year where all my family members had to create a dish from an ingredient from our garden, much of the vegetables standing alone save for some olive oil, sea salt and pepper. The menu included heirloom tomatoes, roasted garlic, edamame, fennel salad, potatoes, and pulled pork (from our pig sweetened from our maple syrup). Then, for dessert, homemade ice cream, paw paw cake, and to top it off, some form of deep, deep dark chocolate. But, if all I could have is a fresh heirloom tomato, preferably Cherokee Purple, I’d be a very happy camper.

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