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Jul 22, 2013

Alumnus accepted into FoodCorps

Nick Geer visits Collicello Urban Gardens in Harrisonburg.
Nick Geer visits Collicello Urban Gardens in Harrisonburg.

If Nick Geer were a vegetable, he would be a wild spring onion. Why? “Because I like to think I can prosper in most any environment and leave a lasting impact on those with whom I come into contact,” he says.

Geer, a May graduate of James Madison University, has never minded getting his hands — or his feet — dirty, whether it was on a local farm as part of an internship, with campus organizations like Environmental Awareness and Restoration Through our Help (EARTH), or at home in the family garden in suburban Richmond.

“It’s fun to create a dish all on your own — grow it, prepare it, eat it and enjoy it,” he says. “And if you don’t enjoy it, just compost it and make something else next time.”

FoodCorps puts agriculture in classrooms
Beginning in September, Geer will have the opportunity to combine his love for homegrown food and community service as a member of the FoodCorps. The 22-year-old will spend 11 months at the St. Mary’s Nutrition Center in Lewiston, Maine, where he will be teaching local schoolchildren about the value of good nutrition and how to build and tend school gardens, as well as partnering with area farmers to put high-quality food on school lunch menus.

FoodCorps is a nonprofit organization aimed at tackling what it sees as the root cause of childhood obesity in the United States: the need for a connection with healthy food. Founded in 2010 and based on the AmeriCorps service model, FoodCorps places bright young college graduates in limited-resource communities to effect positive change. Admission to the program is highly selective. FoodCorps received more than 1,000 applications for its 80 service member positions at 61 sites across 12 states.

“They’re trying to get agriculture in the classroom,” Geer says. “They want to get the students outside and in the greenhouse, get their hands dirty and then have them reap the benefits from it by learning to cook with fresh ingredients from the garden.”

Madison Experience
An international affairs major at JMU, Geer first heard about the FoodCorps program in his senior capstone course, which was focused on the politics of food, from the Farm Bill and the economics of the American diet to global fisheries and international food aid. Early in the semester, the students viewed the documentary “King Corn,” which was directed by Curt Ellis, co-founder and chief executive of FoodCorps.

“Food is a complex intermingling of the global and the local, and it was clear to me from the beginning that Nick was into these sorts of issues,” says Dr. John Scherpereel, associate professor of political science, who teaches the seminar. “He was always great with the readings and he came to class ready to participate in the discussion. And he wrote some great papers,” he adds, including a thesis on why Egypt decided to devote all of its agricultural resources to growing cotton.

While at JMU, Geer also completed an internship in integrated science and technology that required 75 hours of service on a local farm. “I actually got placed on two farms,” he says, “because I wanted to see both vegetable production [with Seasons Bounty north of Harrisonburg) and animal husbandry [with Charis Eco Farm in Staunton].”

Scherpereel describes Geer as “very smart and engaged and passionate, but he’s also humble and always willing to learn. That combination of curiosity and personality … I think will serve him well in the [FoodCorps] and beyond."

Sam Frere (left) and Nick Geer work together at Collicello Urban Gardens
Back in the 'Burg during a recent visit, Geer ('13) visited with Sam Frere ('13), a JMU ISAT graduate, at Collicello Urban Gardens. Frere and Daniel Warren ('13) started the micro-farm using sustainable farming practices learned or experimented with at JMU.

The placement will also allow Geer to use the Arabic language skills he honed at Madison, since Lewiston has a sizeable population of Somali refugees. Geer minored in Arabic and participated in a language-intensive summer study abroad program in Amman, Jordan, in 2012. “A lot of my friends who studied Arabic want to go in counterterrorism, but I just love the culture, the language and the food,” he says.

Be the Change in action
Geer’s maternal grandfather, Morris Draper, was a career diplomat who was involved in the Camp David Accords during the Carter administration and later served as President Reagan’s special Middle East envoy during the Lebanon crisis. “Just hearing those stories of my mom living all over the Middle East and then her cooking some of the food at home and being exposed to the culture [left an impression on me],” Geer says.

Geer admits he doesn’t have much experience with teaching children, but he feels he’s up to the challenge. “I’m just going to treat them like adults. If I can make one kid say ‘I want to grow my own food’ or ‘I want to be a farmer,’ then it’s worth it. I’m just excited to have the opportunity to get the wheels turning inside the kids’ minds [about the importance of nutrition] and to have them take that home to their parents.”

The JMU ethics of community service and health and wellness have helped shape Geer into an agent of change: “Yes, you’re only one person, but you’re also part of a whole and you can make a difference,” he says. “You don’t have to change the world. You can just help change one person’s life and then maybe that person ends up helping someone else and it just adds up.” 

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By Jim Heffernan ('96), JMU Public Affairs 

July 19, 2013