Imagine being able to vote on your school cafeteria’s lunch options each week. Even in the ’80s, I doubt many of us would have chosen soggy fries and cardboard-like pizza. But we probably wouldn’t have chosen vegetables, either.
Fast-casual salad chain Sweetgreen wants to change kids’ attitudes about healthy meals by introducing them in a way that educates students about the importance of fresh food while still giving them choice over what they’re eating. To do so, the Washington, D.C.-based company has partnered with non-profit organization FoodCorps, an AmeriCorps entity that works to find different ways of getting healthier food into schools, to pilot the Reimagining School Cafeterias program in schools around the U.S. (h/t Fast Company).
Reimagining School Cafeterias takes existing school food programs and, with input from Sweetgreen’s culinary team, works to “guide students to make healthier choices and create more inclusive and joyful cafeteria experiences.” Sweetgreen has pledged $1 million over the next two years towards further developing the Reimagining School Cafeterias program. The initiative was announced earlier this month and is currently in three schools in the U.S. Since it builds off existing programs within each school, Reimagining School Cafeterias looks different in each location.
In New Mexico’s Navajo Nation territory, students at Wingate Elementary School can learn about and try out various sauces and spices at the school’s Taste Buds Flavor Bar. The Tasty Challenge, at Aberdeen Elementary School in Aberdeen, NC, lets kids try different fresh produce, prepared in different styles, and vote on what they like best. And in Oakland, CA, Laurel Elementary students brainstorm ideas about how to make their cafeteria better, from the way the room is set up to what’s offered in terms of food.
Getting better, fresher food into schools in the U.S. is a mission more and more organizations are taking on, from Ford Motors introducing vertical farming to schools in Detroit to Teens for Food Justice working in The Bronx to teach youths farming techniques. Those efforts are needed: An estimated 1 in 8 Americans are considered food insecure, including about 12 million children.
What’s interesting about Sweetgreen’s approach to schools is how the fast-casual chain takes its business approach of building your own meals and translates it to the school setting. In other words, it introduces students to healthier eating by giving them choices, and without shoving a plate of green beans at them and forcing them to eat it.
Sweetgreen does a number of community service initiatives, many of which are around sustainability and assisting food desert parts of the U.S. Schools, though, are a particularly important territory. Especially in light of how the USDA recently changed some rules around school food, essentially weakening health standards.
As usual, it’s up to the non-profits of the world to offset a lack of change at the government level by launching programs that teach kids (and everyone else) the value of healthier eating. If more of these programs got support from growing restaurant companies like Sweetgreen, we might even be able to make the concept of fresh veggies appealing to more kids. As one 5th grader is quoted as saying on Sweetgreen’s site, “I thought broccoli was nasty. Not this broccoli. You do it right.”