School cafeterias are swapping dino-shaped chicken fingers for carrot purees. They’re trading mac ’n’ cheese for kale salsa and replacing potato chips with green smoothies.
These lunchrooms are part of a pilot program that FoodCorps, a national nonprofit that promotes healthy foods in schools, launched in March in partnership with Sweetgreen, a fast-casual salad chain. The program, Reimagining School Cafeterias, advocates for the adoption of locally grown produce in schools and offers curricula that emphasizes the importance of healthy eating. The goal is to give students more control over designing healthy school menus.
In March, Sweetgreen pledged $1 million to create scalable healthy eating and educational programming in 50 school cafeterias by 2020. Reimagining School Cafeterias builds off a previous nutrition-based curriculum of theirs called Sweetgreen in Schools. Sweetgreen in Schools launched in 2010 and reached 9,000 students. The new initiative aims to expand the number of students they reach and create demographic-specific learning opportunities for the students.
“In order for students to really want to eat healthier options, they have to be able to create the meals themselves,” Sweetgreen co-founder Nate Ru told FastCompany.
School lunches in America are frequently criticized for being unhealthy, as they tend to be high in fat, sugar and salt. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one out of every five schoolaged children is obese, a figure that’s tripled since the 1970s.
“We know that school cafeterias are an incredibly powerful place to connect kids with healthy food,” FoodCorps co-founder and executive director Curt Ellis told FastCompany. “There are over 100,000 school cafeterias in the country — seven times more than the number of McDonalds.”
Reimagining School Cafeterias is currently being piloted in three schools that all vary in terms of geography and socioeconomic status. In the 2019-2020 school year, organizers say the program will expand to 6,500 students at 15 schools. The year after, it will be implemented in 50 schools and will reach an estimated 22,000 students.
At Aberdeen Elementary School, a pilot program in Aberdeen, North Carolina, students are trying veggies cooked in new ways. For example, students traded in raw carrots for carrots that had been roasted or pureed, with the goal of showing students different ways that produce can be prepared. After each taste test, the students vote for a favorite. That winner will be incorporated into the school’s lunch menu. In the coming months, they’ll try asparagus and peas cooked in unfamiliar ways.
In New Mexico’s Navajo Nation territory, the focus is on flavor. Students at Wingate Elementary School are learning to use spices to create new tastes to complement traditional school-lunch vegetables.
Finally, in Oakland, California, at Laurel Elementary School, students look at the big picture, with a focus on how they might improve their cafeteria. Students redesign table layouts and lunch menus. They will work with Sweetgreen and partner organizations to get those ideas implemented in the coming months.
“There are 30 million children a day who walk in the front doors of our nation’s schools. Those kids are going there to learn but they are also going there to eat,” Ellis told Forbes. “If we care about the next generation of kids and their health and long-term potential, we better fix school food.”