Lessons from Collaboration: How One Nonprofit Scaled Up Nutrition Education

by Tina Casey
Mar 21, 2019 11:00 AM ET

Originally published on TriplePundit

This article series is sponsored by Walmart and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.

Corporate charity is branching out from its roots in the traditional gift-giving model. The innovative corporate foundations of today are engaging in transformative, dynamic work with nonprofits to achieve impacts far beyond their initial scope. The collaboration between the Walmart Foundation and the nonprofit organization FoodCorps exemplifies this trend, and it illustrates how companies can lend both their financial firepower and their expertise to help nonprofits scale up their missions.

The FoodCorps nutrition education model

FoodCorps launched in 2010 with the mission of reaching children in school with empowering lessons about healthier eating.

The FoodCorps nutrition program involves the whole school—including teachers, staff and foodservice workers—and often extends to students’ families to create a culture of health. It revolves around hands-on and interactive classroom learning, healthier school meals, school gardens, and lessons that students can apply at home.

The “Corps” part of the program is also a key factor. As an AmeriCorps grant recipient, part of the FoodCorps mission is to support a new generation of emerging leaders. Schools that participate in the FoodCorps program host an AmeriCorps service member, who oversees the program as a school leader, role model and mentor throughout the academic year.

“The program is not just about creating an interest in healthy food,” explains FoodCorps co-founder and CEO Curt Ellis. “It’s really about taking ownership and bringing it home to their families.”

From startup to nutrition education powerhouse

In its earliest years, FoodCorps was a startup with a modestly-scaled base of operations.That changed five years ago, when its innovative, holistic education model caught the eye of the Walmart Foundation. Today, with the help of the Walmart Foundation and other funders, FoodCorps serves more than 160,000 students in both urban and rural areas, across 18 states and Washington, D.C.

“The work has been a two-way street of learning and improvement, not only improving food access for students in need but improving food education,” Ellis says. 

Ellis credits the Walmart Foundation’s razor-sharp focus on the FoodCorps mission for the success of the collaboration. He draws a contrast between the Foundation’s approach and traditional corporate giving, which is sometimes aimed at getting the biggest public relations bang for the buck. That kind of funding relationship can quickly cause a nonprofit to veer off track and focus on perceived success rather than concrete achievements, he explains.

“The Walmart Foundation is an incredibly rigorous and high-trust funding partner,” Ellis says. “They also have depth of knowledge on food education and food access. They bring strategic expertise to bear, helping us do our work smarter. The future of solving the problems of healthy food and access require us to be rigorous and innovative. We need to respond to our beneficiaries as customers and respect them fully as customers. If we as an organization want to tackle the problem of healthy food and access at scale, we need to bring the same focus and determination to social-sector work as companies like Walmart bring to the private sector.”

High standards make a difference

Support from the Walmart Foundation enabled FoodCorps to embark on a broad survey of peer-reviewed literature, resulting in the development of a toolkit for action planning and goal setting that emphasizes hands-on learning and high-quality lessons in school gardens.

A recent assessment of the FoodCorps program demonstrates how nonprofits can benefit from this kind of intensive, fact-based analysis. The FoodCorps assessment describes areas of strength and pathways for improvement. For example, it shows that students in schools with the highest rating for hands-on learning are eating three times more fruits and vegetables than children in schools with the lowest rating.

The detailed evaluation also correlates the number of hours that AmeriCorps members spend in schools with a measurable improvement in healthier eating.

FoodCorps is not the only beneficiary of the Walmart Foundation’s rigorous approach. In 2014, Walmart and the Walmart Foundation made a commitment to provide nutrition education to 4 million people over five years, and met the milestone a year early.  This was accomplished by working not only with FoodCorps, but also supporting other nutrition programs such as 4-H, Common Threads and Share Our Strength’s Cooking Matters program.   

As important as the numbers are, the human factor is still fundamental to success.

Looking at the experiences of students and families who are learning through the FoodCorps program, Ellis shares a story about a student who took a recipe home and created a new meal with both her mother and her grandmother. “It’s about unlocking the full power of food as this thing that brings us all together,” he says.

Image courtesy of FoodCorps