This school year Stephanie Lip is trying to achieve the impossible — to get students in the Tohono O’odham tribe to eat tepary beans (a traditional tribal staple) rather than Doritos. “I get some attitude from middle schoolers,” says Lip, one of the food movement’s newest activists, “but we try to empower them and not force anything on them.” Although her situation may seem unusual, Lip isn’t alone in trying to get kids hooked on fruits and vegetables. As part of FoodCorps, she is one of 50 service members touting the benefits of healthy and local eating in communities around the nation.

FoodCorps was founded in 2009 as a grantee of AmeriCorps, and like AmeriCorps, it produces social leaders, but with a focus on nutrition and sustainable eating. Members are sent to 41 sites in 10 states, where they live and serve communities. So what, I wondered, does it take to be the next Michael Pollan or Mark Bittman? 

Applicants aiming to emulate the high standards set by FoodCorps’ six founders — who include alumni of Slow Food and the National Farm to School Network — discovered that being accepted to the program was no small feat. Last year, the 1,200 FoodCorps hopefuls had a better chance of getting into Harvard than the food advocacy program. FoodCorps’ 4% acceptance rate (compared to Harvard’s 6%) meant that candidates had to be nothing short of outstanding to be selected as one of the first 50 corps members — and as it turned out there is no shortage of exceptional food-focused youth.

Once accepted, members serve several schools in their state by imparting nutrition education, building or expanding existing school gardens, and revitalizing school cafeterias. “In various ways our service members are all doing all three of these things, but what that looks like in Massachusetts compared to Mississippi compared to Oregon compared to New Mexico is different, and that’s the way it should be,” says FoodCorps co-founder Curt Ellis.

For some of the service members, the challenge isn’t just educating students about nutrition, it’s doing so in a completely foreign climate. This was undoubtedly the case for Stephanie Lip, a New Yorker who found herself on a Native American reservation in Sells, Arizona where over 50% of the population has type II diabetes. Last year the Tohono O’odham community action program was able to provide a traditional lunch option at the school once a week and Lip is assisting the school’s Food Service Director in order to expand the offering.

Lip’s interest in nutrition education, and ultimately FoodCorps, arose from her own personal trials as a teenager. After her recovery from bone cancer at the age of 15, Lip decided to prioritize her passions, which led her to culinary school. “I thought I wanted to be a chef, but I soon learned that there are more options in the culinary world than that. I went on to study nutrition, which really opened my eyes,” she says.

Not all FoodCorps members identified their devotion to food activism at such a young age. “As a child, and even as a young adult I was not interested or concerned about food and certainly not about nutrition,” says service member Allison Marshall. Marshall, who grew up in an urban, food-insecure household in Massachusetts, was focused on social justice, but it wasn’t until college that she honed in on food access as a cause.

Marshall is now drawing on her own experience to serve students with a similar lack of food access in Gaston County, North Carolina. At her site, Marshall is revaluating a pre-existing 14-week curriculum (nine weeks of gardening and five weeks of nutrition) aimed at third graders in seven schools. She is also creating a farm to school program in conjunction with the Child Nutrition Director, as well as helping to set up school-wide and community-wide gardening committees to establish an infrastructure for the gardening and nutrition programs in the future.

In the field, service members like Lip and Marshall have quickly learned that making a substantial difference requires a lot of patience above all else. “I came here with larger-than-life aspirations, and it has taken some concerted effort to be able to take a step back and realize that even small steps are important, and that they are pieces of larger goals and progress,” says Marshall.

Looking ahead, both Lip and Marshall hope to continue serving community nutrition needs, but not all FoodCorps members will necessarily commit to a career in food advocacy. “We really hope that this is a gateway for people who want to pursue careers related to FoodCorps,” says another FoodCorps co-founder, Cecily Upton. “But if it’s not, then that’s OK too, and we just hope that they’ll be able to take the experience and use it to inform the decisions that they make and the type of impact that they have in their communities.”

Besides, Upton says, there’s no shortage of interest in the nascent organization. “There have been some inklings from other places around the world that they’ve seen what we’re up to and are interested. But we’re really focused on being in all 50 states here,” she says. “Our goal is 50 states and 1,000 service members in the next 10 years.”