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

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?

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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