Customers who step into a Sweetgreen might choose the chicken pesto parm bowl, lentil avocado salad, or go on a build-your-own adventure as they proceed down the assembly line of fresh ingredients. The not-so-secret recipe is that healthy food gets prepared in clever ways, and there’s plenty of choice. Sweetgreen just committed $1 million to the nonprofit FoodCorps to try to do the same thing with school lunches.
FoodCorps, which launched in 2009, exists to connect kids with healthier ways of eating through things like school gardening programs and in-school culinary lessons. In this case, Sweetgreen is backing three specific initiatives that the nonprofit uses to improve school cafeterias. The first is its so-called “tasty challenge,” which allows kids to regularly try fruits and vegetable prepared in different ways and vote for their favorites (trying raw versus roasted carrots, for instance). The second is the addition of a “flavor bar” of sauces and spices that kids can use to explore new flavors and ways of seasoning their food (from adobo to hot sauce, ketchup, or garlic granules).
The third concept is a community feedback and planning process called School Cafeteria 2.0 that empowers kids to decide for themselves how their dining experience might be improved, and then use that consensus to make changes alongside school administrators. In some schools, the priority might be more natural light and plants, while in others, it could be more communal seating, rethinking how the food itself is arranged and served so kids actually have time to eat it.
Sweetgreen cofounder Nathaniel Ru says that one of the most appealing aspects of all these concepts is the “hands-on learning” opportunities for kids. In some ways, it represents what’s happening in his shops as regulars try or combine new things. “[This] is really focused on seeking to understand students’ kind of choice and voice and things that really change behavior in terms of healthy eating in schools,” he says. (Plus, starting kids on salads early is a good step toward growing the pool of future Sweetgreen customers.)
After visiting schools and studying student behavior, FoodCorps began implementing these changes at five prototype schools last fall. With Sweetgreen’s backing, they’ll expand the effort to 15 cafeterias around the country during the 2019 school year, reaching an estimated 6,500 students in 10 states including Oregon, Arkansas, Michigan, New York, and Virginia. FoodCorps works with 350 schools in 18 states. The initial goal is to add this kind of programming to 50 schools and be helping 20,000 kids by the end of 2020.
From now until October 10, Sweetgreen is also donating $1 for each of certain salads purchased in its stores to FoodCorps (with a cap of $25,000 per week) to hopefully raise $100,000 for the program—and more awareness of its work. Exactly how the program will evolve is still being decided, but Sweetgreen also expects to lend its expertise in sourcing and food ordering and pickup technologies in some ways to help participating schools get better ingredients at lower costs and improve the experience for kids.