As part of lunch recently, students at an elementary school in Aberdeen, North Carolina were faced with a choice: Did they like carrots best raw, roasted, or in soup form? In the cafeteria, they got to try all three, then vote for their favorite on a tablet. They’ll get to weigh in on other seasonal veggies, like asparagus and peas, as spring rolls around.
The Tasty Challenge the Aberdeen school is just one element of a larger program by FoodCorps, a U.S.-wide nonprofit that promotes healthy food in schools, called Reimagining School Cafeterias. Through the initiative, FoodCorps aims to get students eating more fresh, local produce (and enjoying it), and learning about the food system in the process. For the latest phase of the program, the fast-casual salad company Sweetgreen is lending support to FoodCorps to develop different ways that kids can access and interact with food in cafeterias.
Right now, Sweetgreen and FoodCorps are piloting three elements of Reimagining School Cafeterias in schools across the U.S. There’s the Tasty Challenge in Aberdeen, which gets kids thinking about different ways produce can be prepared, and at at a Navajo Nation school in New Mexico, kids can play with different sauces and spices and learn how to use them at the Taste Buds Flavor Bar. At an elementary school in Oakland, kids are participating in a program called Our Cafeteria, where they come up with ideas for how to make their cafeteria better. Through group brainstorming, they discuss everything from table layout to food offerings, and they’ll work with the partner organizations to get their ideas implemented in the next few months.
Sweetgreen has previously worked with schools to educate kids about healthy food, but this new program, which actually translates the restaurant chain’s approach to meals into cafeterias, is a next step, says Sweetgreen cofounder Nate Ru. The whole idea behind Sweetgreen–that fresh, local, healthy food can taste good, and that you can design how you want to eat it–is what the Sweetgreen and FoodCorps team heard from kids about what they want their lunches to be like. “In order for students to really want to eat healthier options, they have to be able to create the meals themselves,” Ru says. The whole initiative is built around different ways to support kids’ agency when it comes to food.
“We know that school cafeterias are an incredibly powerful place to connect kids with healthy food,” says FoodCorps cofounder and executive director Curt Ellis. “There are over 100,000 school cafeterias in the country–seven times more than the number of McDonalds.” Schools have made some strides in recent years to improve the quality of food they offer kids: In 2012, Michelle Obama introduced new standards that set minimum requirements for fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in school meals, and limit sodium, sugar, and fat. But accessing fresh, good-quality food (especially produce) to meet those standards is still a challenge. Still, only around 2% of kids in America eat the recommended portion of fruits and vegetables, and many struggle with health concerns: One in three kids is overweight or obese, and 50% of children of color are projected to develop type 2 diabetes in their lifetime.
Through the new initiative, FoodCorps and Sweetgreen want to overhaul both what kinds of food kids get access to and how they experience lunches in school. From the pilots in three schools, which aim to capture a geographically and socioeconomically diverse set of students in the U.S., they’ll expand to five for a more extended pilot this spring, and eventually reach up to 50 schools by the 2020 school year through a $1 million commitment from Sweetgreen.