AmeriCorps CEO Michael Smith: Volunteer Service Is Key to Food Security | Civil Eats

AmeriCorps CEO Michael Smith: Volunteer Service Is Key to Food Security

As it celebrates its 30th anniversary, the government agency’s new leader discusses the many ways it’s addressing myriad food-related and challenges, especially in marginalized, low-income communities.

AmeriCorps NCCC provides environmental stewardship in Baltimore.

AmeriCorps NCCC program members work on a farm in Baltimore. (Photo courtesy of AmeriCorps)

AmeriCorps, the government agency that gives people of all ages jobs and volunteer opportunities in community service, hasn’t always been focused on the food system. But the agency, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year, is now doing just that—putting people to work in food banks and community gardens, giving them work delivering meals to seniors, and much more. And with $1 billion in new funding as a result of the American Rescue Plan, the agency has been expanding its work.

President Biden nominated Michael D. Smith as the eighth chief executive officer of AmeriCorps, and he hit the ground running after his Senate confirmation in December 2021. In that time, Smith has overseen both the food-access and social justice aspects of AmeriCorps’ work, as well as new funding for an AmeriCorps Seniors program. Smith previously served as director of youth opportunity programs at the Obama Foundation and as executive director of the Obama Foundation’s My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) Alliance, which leads a national call to action to build safe and supportive communities for boys and young men of color where they are valued and have clear pathways to opportunity.

Smith has spent much of his time as CEO of AmeriCorps traveling across the U.S. handing out new funding to local volunteer organizations and service groups and helping the administration launch its equity action plan. He recently spoke with Civil Eats about how the agency intends to address the ongoing challenges of food insecurity, climate change, diet-related illness, and other emerging challenges, especially in marginalized, low-income communities.

The American Rescue Plan contains $1 billion for AmeriCorps and many of its programs. How will you deploy and leverage those funds and what will be your priorities in the areas of food insecurity and child poverty?

Michael D. Smith.

AmeriCorps builds the capacity of food banks and addresses food insecurity at hundreds of locations across the nation. During the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated four in 10 Americans visited food banks for the first time. Thanks to the American Rescue Plan, we expanded on our existing aid networks. AmeriCorps members and AmeriCorps Seniors volunteers help food banks and pantries meet higher demand by organizing volunteers, packing meal kits, participating in food distribution events, and delivering food to homes. They provide meals and groceries to vulnerable seniors, support students through school food distribution sites and food delivery, and care for community gardens that provide fresh, healthy produce to food banks.

Many of our programs across the nation have also been able to combat child poverty by connecting families to both the Child Tax Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit. AmeriCorps took a whole-agency approach to tax outreach, intending to educate and activate as many of the agency’s networks as possible. And we continue to utilize targeted partnerships through so that everyone eligible can receive their entitlements.

Can you say more about the AmeriCorps VISTA pilot program to create a comprehensive and collaborative approach to hunger?

Before the American Rescue Plan, we successfully launched a pilot $2 million food security initiative through the VISTA program in four states. While the program surged funds into food security efforts with more AmeriCorps members and federal resources for COVID-19 response and recovery, it also created a learning community among the initiatives’ selected sponsors to cultivate collaboration and best practices sharing in the food security space.

With the help of the American Rescue Plan, we were able to expand that investment, particularly in rural communities. So far, we have announced a new program in Alabama and expect announcements in Puerto Rico, Arizona, and Arkansas this summer.

Explain how the FoodCorps–AmeriCorps relationship works and how much of AmeriCorps’ food insecurity programming is channeled through FoodCorps.

FoodCorps is an AmeriCorps state and national program grantee, separate from our [own] initiatives. FoodCorps, and many other food security organizations, apply through our annual grants process, and if funded, they receive federal money for AmeriCorps members and programs.

Each year, roughly 20 percent of VISTA’s 8,000 members serve in roles dedicated to addressing food insecurity. Healthy futures is one of our six focus areas with many programs like our food security initiative, COVID-19 response efforts, and Public Health AmeriCorps—a new partnership between AmeriCorps and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

How do you view the agency’s role in mitigating the effects of climate change and its impact on food security in the U.S.?

AmeriCorps is committed to reducing the inequitable effects of climate change and helping communities become more resilient and adapt to our changing environment. Our members and volunteers tackle a wide range of conservation and climate challenges in rural and urban areas by protecting biodiversity, maintaining urban and rural farms, and helping communities prepare for and recover from natural disasters and extreme weather events.

The AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) program and FEMA Corps are examples of how we’re also mitigating the effects of natural disasters and caring for communities after disaster strikes. Since 2000, these teams have assisted 20.6 million people in disaster areas and served 6.1 million meals, among other disaster response and recovery efforts.

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As you have traveled across the U.S. with AmeriCorps, what kind of food insecurity issues have you seen, and how will your agency use its newfound capacity to address the most critical issues in mostly minority communities?

Food banks and food pantries are responding to increased demand, and we have to support them. Many traditional food networks saw the increased need as temporary, COVID-specific food pantries have begun to close, and organizations are returning to their original missions. But we know that the need persists.

Preparing food boxes as part of AmeriCorps' COVID response.

Preparing food boxes as part of AmeriCorps’ COVID response.

Second, nonprofit and community organizations need additional resources. As organizations continue to respond to food security challenges, they do so in an uncertain funding environment. Many are rebuilding their volunteer base post-pandemic, and AmeriCorps uses American Rescue Plan funding to help these organizations rebuild.

And finally, reaching households in the greatest need is critical. Food security does not affect all communities equally, and AmeriCorps intentionally supports communities where the need is greatest.

What do you see as AmeriCorps role in improving access to healthier, better food choices in low-income and low-food-access communities of color, where nearly 13 percent of Americans live?

We see underserved communities—like some communities of color, rural areas, and tribal nations—face greater food security challenges than others. In order to address the inequities in our nation, we’ve made significant changes to our processes and continue to expand on that. For example, AmeriCorps included racial equity as a funding priority in the 2021 seniors grant competitions, and VISTA program guidance.

Nate Benjamin, our first chief diversity and inclusion officer, recently came on board and one of his main objectives is to address racial barriers and advance opportunities for both agency staff and services.

As AmeriCorps grows, the organization is tackling so many interlinked crises—climate change, systemic racism, community underinvestment, food access, nutrition and chronic health conditions—that’s a lot for any one organization to take on. I would love to hear how you see your role as leading the organization to a place that can continue to manage all those challenges.

At the heart of all [these challenges] is equity. While I am still learning and listening, we have the opportunity and responsibility to unite people through service. Ensuring Americans see the critical importance of national service and tackling the barriers to national service are my top priority.

AmeriCorps volunteers prepare meals for the Martin Luther King, Jr., Day of Service in 2016.

AmeriCorps volunteers prepare meals for the Martin Luther King, Jr., Day of Service in 2016.

We need to make sure that every American who is serving, being served, or wants to serve sees themselves as a part of our national service family. We must inspire and enable more Americans to serve in their communities and across the country. And, we need to ensure that the organizations we fund are all shapes and sizes and have diverse, homegrown leadership at the helm.

Recent research has found that 66 percent of volunteers have reduced their volunteer time during the early days of pandemic. Has your organization seen a corresponding decline?

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Our volunteer rate remains remarkably consistent, as does the rate of “informal volunteering” in America—meaning things like “helping a neighbor.” Our VISTA program found that rates of volunteerism went up during the first summer of the pandemic. We were already trusted partners in many places and we were able to pivot quickly and start responding to needs. From vaccination efforts to taking programs like the Foster Grandparent Program into virtual environments, we adapted very quickly.

However, I know that many of our partner community, nonprofit, and faith-based organizations suffered early in the pandemic, and we’ve used the American Rescue Plan to help them rebuild. There are always opportunities for Americans to serve and we connect individuals around the nation to volunteer opportunities in their local area.

Do you have any concluding thoughts about AmeriCorps’ mission to end food insecurity in America?

I believe the agency can play a meaningful role in bringing people together during one of the most divisive and challenging times in our nation’s history. When AmeriCorps members work together to tackle a problem like food security, it provides a sense of common purpose and helps bridge our differences.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

All photos courtesy of AmeriCorps.

Wesley Brown is a Senior Reporter for Civil Eats. Based in Arkansas, he is the former publisher of the Daily Record, and a long-time business and political reporter. His articles on corporate news, the energy industry, and the stock market have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, and Dow Jones international newswires, the Associated Press and dozens of top U.S. newspapers. Wesley is also a board director for the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio, and serves on the Arkansas Freedom of Information Task Force. He is also chairman of deacons at Christway Missionary Baptist Church in Little Rock. Read more >

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