On a recent Tuesday, the cafeteria at KairosPDX charter school in Portland, Ore., was buzzing as students lined up to taste two freshly made butternut squash recipes. On one side of the table was roasted butternut squash. On the other side, a creamy butternut squash soup.
“This one is the best,” said Mari, a fifth grader, as she gulped soup from a small cup. “It’s super delicious. I want a big bowl of it to eat at home.”
The students were participating in a “Tasty Challenge” event organized by FoodCorps, a nonprofit organization that connects children to healthy food in schools. The group recently teamed up with Sweetgreen, the national salad chain, to carry out a new program that aims to improve the school food experience by letting students customize their meals, participate in taste tests and brainstorm ways to redesign their school cafeterias.
While there are many organizations that are working to improve school food, FoodCorps preaches that children fall in love with fruits and vegetables when they have opportunities to grow them, prepare them, and try them again and again. The group shows children how to get their hands in the dirt, encouraging them to spend time in gardens pulling carrots, beets and sweet potatoes from the ground. Then the children get to taste the fruits of their labor and learn about them through culinary and nutrition lessons.
“It’s incredibly important to give kids the tools and skills they need to build their own relationship with healthy food, and our job is to support them in that,” said Curt Ellis, the group’s co-founder and chief executive officer. “It’s about helping them discover what they love to eat rather than telling them what they should eat.”
Mr. Ellis started FoodCorps a decade ago after his work as a co-creator of the documentary “King Corn,” which looked at how America’s overproduction of corn impacts public health, the environment and family farms. Mr. Ellis traveled around the country showing his film on college campuses and was astonished by how many young people approached him to talk about their desire to change the food system.
So in 2010, he co-founded FoodCorps to give them an outlet.
The organization now has a team of 250 service members who work in 400 schools in 18 states, mostly in poor neighborhoods where obesity rates are high. The service members, many of them recent college graduates, are trained to promote wellness, whether that is building school gardens or spending time in lunchrooms introducing students to new foods.
Based in Portland and New York, the group is funded by AmeriCorps, the national service program, as well as private foundations and companies such as Sweetgreen. A recent study by researchers at Teachers College, Columbia University, found that schools that partnered with the organization tended to have “measurably healthier school food environments after a year of FoodCorps presence,” and that students who had the most exposure to gardening and culinary lessons ate up to three times more fruits and vegetables at lunch.
Nationwide, lifestyle related diseases have taken a toll on children’s health. Roughly one in three kids is overweight or obese, and diabetes is on the rise. Some children get about half their daily calories at school, but many schools struggle to provide nutritious meals that kids will eat: A federal study published last year found high levels of food waste, with more than a quarter of the calories and nutrients produced in elementary school cafeterias going into the garbage.
But making vegetables more appealing is only half the battle. FoodCorps recently commissioned a study that involved interviewing over 400 students, school nutrition workers, teachers and other staff members at nine diverse schools around the country. It found a range of ways that schools can make their meals a more pleasant experience.
Many children lamented the lack of variety and flavor in their meals. They said their meals did not reflect their cultural heritage or what they ate at home and at restaurants. Some students and staff members complained about windowless, cramped cafeterias that felt colorless and depressing, and lunch periods that were too short. In many schools, students had as little as 15 minutes to wait in line, eat their food and catch up with friends. Ultimately the students said they wished they had more control over their cafeteria experience.
The findings prompted FoodCorps to start its “Reimagining School Cafeterias” program, which has several components. One is the “Tasty Challenge,” in which kids try vegetables prepared in different ways and vote on their favorites. Participating schools get a “flavor bar” where students can add special herbs and seasonings to their meals like adobo, hot sauce and garlic. Students also get to provide input to their schools about ways to revamp their cafeterias, such as adding more plants and natural lighting.
Sweetgreen, which has a chain of 100 farm-to-table, fast-casual restaurants across the country, provided FoodCorps $1 million to help finance the initiative. It started in 15 schools in 2019 and will expand to 50 schools this year, reaching an estimated 22,000 students.
Sweetgreen has long championed healthy eating among students through its own nutrition initiative, called Sweetgreen in Schools, which it introduced a decade ago. Jonathan Neman, a co-founder and chief executive of the company, said he realized that the chain could have a bigger impact on the food culture in schools by partnering with a nonprofit like FoodCorps.
“What excited us was that we could help with our marketing and design muscle and then fund them to do this at scale,” he said.
At Kairos, more than half the student population qualifies for free or reduced lunch. The school was founded in 2012 with a focus on improving educational outcomes for students of color. Kali Ladd, its co-founder and executive director, said that in the past Kairos’s students wouldn’t touch a vegetable unless it was smothered in ranch dressing or other condiments. “They never wanted to eat vegetables — they would just throw them out,” she said.
But now Kairos has a full time FoodCorps service member, Sophie Rasmussen, and a FoodCorps graduate who became the school’s nutrition and garden coordinator, Graham Schreiber. Together they teach the students how to grow and harvest vegetables in a community garden and use them in recipes. “With the access to the garden we’ve seen a dramatic change in the eating habits of our kids,” said Ms. Ladd. “The first year we had a FoodCorps member, they harvested kale and made a stew with it, and that’s something we would have never seen before. In terms of helping our kids develop healthy eating habits, it’s been wonderful.”
During a recent lunch period at the school, a group of fifth graders sat around a table talking about the butternut squash taste test and describing their favorite garden-inspired school meals, including sweet potato fries and yakisoba noodles with shredded cabbage and carrots. Then they rattled off a list of the crops they were growing: blueberries, cucumbers, tomatoes, beets, peas, basil and more.
Gus, 11, said that the taste test was the first time he had ever tried butternut squash and that he found the soup delicious.
“I think that squash by itself is a little blandish, but the soup fixes it by adding more flavor to it,” he said. “It was a great first impression.”