The Advocate Who Makes a Difference

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Curt Ellis '98 works to educate about food policy--and bring healthy food to children nationwide

From the Summer 2012 Caller

By Nadine Fiedler

Curt Ellis ’98 changed the national conversation about food and agriculture with his film King Corn. Now he’s set in motion a new national organization, FoodCorps, that will improve children’s access to better nutrition and school food. He’s idealistic, determined, and a great collaborator. With enthusiasm and humility, Curt Ellis faces big challenges—and gets things done.
Curt began his work as a food and agriculture advocate as a student at Yale University. “Something felt strange to me about graduating from college with an understanding of philosophy, science, and history, but knowing nothing about the food we eat,” he says. “The more we learned about the way food is grown and produced, and its impact on land and people, and the decline of health in Fast Food Nation, we came to feel that the system was not serving people well.” He and his friend Ian Cheney engaged the campus community with actions that were hard to ignore: they filled a kiddie wading pool with manure, stocked the quad with sheep, and brought in renowned chef and food activist Alice Waters to cook a dinner with food from local farms.
After graduation, Curt and Ian kept telling the story of the state of food and agriculture. They co-produced a documentary film called King Corn, released in 2007, which chronicled how Curt and Ian grew an acre of corn in Iowa for a year. Ian, Curt, and the film’s director, Curt’s cousin Aaron Woolf, produced an engaging, funny, and deeply serious film that brought to life their concerns about how food systems undermine health and fill markets with unhealthy food such as high-fructose corn syrup and confined, corn-fed beef
Curt and his collaborators weren’t content to stop at the making of the film: they wanted to bring its message to as wide an audience as they could. They used King Corn as a vehicle to change minds by screening it in Congress during deliberations about the Farm Bill and showing it in church basements and colleges in the Farm Belt and around the country. They worked with journalists to get them involved, and they connected with people at the grassroots level working on the issues. “The King Corn distribution blitz was a great, crazy adventure. We poured blood, sweat, and all our credit cards into King Corn, so it was a relief to know people other than my mom were watching it,” says Curt. Their efforts paid off: King Corn has had a powerful effect on the way Americans now view food policy.
“We’re still small potatoes in the world of blockbuster Hollywood movies, but King Corn reached several million people who saw the whole film, and many millions more who heard about it from the media and started getting educated on the issues. Film is a conversation starter—it’s not the last word. We got people talking, and that led to real change,” Curt says. After PBS aired King Corn in 2008, he and his crew were honored for their efforts with a Peabody Award.
Curt and Ian followed up with the 2010 film Big River, another collaboration with Aaron Woolf, about the effect of their acre of corn on downstream waters, and it was shown on Discovery Channel’s Planet Green series. They then embarked on the Truck Farm public art project, growing food on the back of a pickup truck in Brooklyn. On a road trip with the Truck Farm, Curt saw how magical it was for schoolchildren to see food grown in a strange place, and how it perked up their interest in fruits and vegetables.
With the experience he gained in making and marketing King Corn, Curt began conversations in 2009 with a group of five other advocates to figure out how they could accelerate the changes they wished to see in the national food system—in particular, with children in communities where obesity and hunger are significant challenges. Their idea, which is completing its first year on the ground, was FoodCorps: a national nonprofit, a “Teach for America for healthy school food.”
“There’s an inspiring generation of young leaders interested in food and agriculture,” says Curt. “FoodCorps gives them an opportunity for one year of paid public service. We thought it would work. We made it possible and paved the pathways.”
In an open planning process, the New York-based FoodCorps group solicited applications from organizations at the state level that were already doing work of this kind to be FoodCorps partners, and to work with the service members. They felt that working with local organizations and agencies, which are attuned to their local cultures, was key to success.
More than a thousand people applied for the 50 open positions as FoodCorps service members. “It’s not easy work. The service members earn a poverty-level wage, and they donate all their time and talent to make change possible in the world. The good news is the hard work is incredibly rewarding,” says Curt. Service members, who are also members of the AmeriCorps national service network, are working right now in 10 states, including Oregon, concentrating on three areas:
+ Food and nutrition education. They show where food comes from, in the classroom or in the garden. They talk about why fruits and vegetables are good for you in a way that sticks.
+ School gardens. This may be the students’ first time tasting healthy food. Because they’ve grown it, they can take pride in it. It’s a way for kids, parents, and community members to get their hands in the dirt side by side with their neighbors.
+ Access to good food, and a chance to eat well. FoodCorps members involve food service staff and chefs to get healthy farm-to-school food on school lunch menus.
Many FoodCorps service members have told Curt about the positive reactions they get from the schoolchildren. One stationed in Arkansas told about a day she did a pesto taste test with the kids, and a girl said, “I’d rather have this than a cookie.” A kid said to one member in Maine, “I never knew you could eat green leaves grown in the dirt!” And one member in Des Moines reported that a kid said to him, “You’re just like Justin Bieber, but for vegetables.”
In its first year, FoodCorps has shown remarkable results. “We’ve worked with 42,000 kids in the nine months we’ve been active. We’ve recruited more than 1,100 local volunteers to join in the work and help sustain it. We’ve built or revitalized 323 school or community gardens since August of 2010. We’ve donated 7,465 pounds of extra produce to needy communities,” says Curt. FoodCorps hopes to double the number of service members next year, and to keep growing.
Reflecting on his time at Catlin Gabel, Curt sees the value of a close community. “People care about each other at Catlin Gabel, in a way that sometimes feels like it’s missing from our culture at large. Our food culture can be brutally unfair: people who are not affluent often don’t have access to healthy, high-quality food. We’re not farming sustainably or looking out for our kids’ health. It’s a short-sighted view, when you think of the long-term consequences to the environment and health. My teachers at Catlin Gabel did an amazing job helping all of us to learn to take the long view. We were always asked to look outside ourselves, and to think how we can contribute, individually and as a country.”
“FoodCorps is all-consuming for me. I work long days, but I love my job,” says Curt. “It’s different from making films, but is actually a better fit for my interests and skills. Making films, you get to tell stories about people making a difference—but now I get to be part of getting things done myself.”
Nadine Fiedler is editor of the Caller and Catlin Gabel’s publications and public relations director.