By Greg Christian, Beyond Green Sustainable Food Partners, and Karen Dittrich, Creatif Leaf Marketing


Let us imagine a school where students enjoy eating meals that are prepared from scratch using fresh ingredients from the school garden and local farms, where children practice being good stewards of the earth by recycling and composting, and where they are eager to learn more about food and nutrition in their classrooms.  This is not imaginary – it can be a reality for many schools.


We have worked in school food environments nationwide for more than 35 years combined. During this time, we have learned that people simply need to get back to the basics to make real change happen.  We have developed a proven process to achieve the dream of serving fabulous school food in a sustainable system. The following steps guide us to build sustainable food systems that engage all members of the school community. By using this process, we have been able to take food service operations from average to outstanding.


Step 1 – Assess Reality

To start the process, we need to identify how a school currently approaches its food service.  Our first step is to perform an assessment where we make on-site observations and ask questions to determine the current reality in the school. Some of our questions typically include:

  • What is the menu?
  • What foods are the kitchen staff buying and making?
  • How engaged is the kitchen staff?
  • Do they have the energy to take it to the next level?
  • Do students like the foods served?
  • How much food is processed or already prepared?
  • Does the kitchen team cook or can they?
  • How many pounds of food are wasted daily?
  • How much kitchen waste is there, including overproduction? Is it less than 4%?
  • Are students learning about food and sustainability at school?
  • Are parents and school community members engaged and supportive?


Step 2 – Develop the Strategy

Once we know the lay of the land, we then develop a vision for the future.  We meet with members of the kitchen staff, students, parents, school administration, and some community members to determine what is important to the school community as it pertains to food, sustainability, and engagement.  Then we use this feedback to lay out a strategy with benchmarks, so there are clear outcomes and quantifiable results.


Some examples of benchmarks include:

  • 80% of the student population is educated on food/nutrition weekly
  • 85% of foods are cooked from scratch and 50% are from local sources
  • Hormone & antibiotic-free foods are used (100% hormone and antibiotic-free milk, 25% of all other dairy products, 50% meats/proteins)
  • 90% of all waste is diverted from the landfill (recycled/composted)


Photo | Karen Dittrich

Photo | Karen Dittrich


Step 3 – Implement the Strategy and Engage the School Community

Once the strategy is developed, we make sure that all stakeholders are in agreement. Then it is time to implement the strategy and engage the school community. It is critical to track all data points so that progress can be measured throughout the process.  We also identify where any funding may be needed to improve the kitchen equipment or facility. To be the most effective in driving food and sustainability education throughout the school, we often suggest to our school clients that they consider hiring a green team coordinator to lead these education initiatives.


We also recommend considering these ideas to further encourage engagement:

  • Get everyone cooking!
    • Teach the kitchen staff how to cook again. This can happen through culinary training, community chef visits, or visits and workdays at other schools that already cook from scratch.
    • Get students cooking in the school kitchen every day.
    • Invite families to after-school cooking classes.
  • Encourage parents to track waste at home so that families can make better financial and environmental choices outside of school.
  • Invite guest chefs, including parent guest chefs, to cook at school.
  • Get the community involved and let everyone know what’s happening through school communications and press releases – tell the sustainable food story!
  • Ask dietetic interns, higher education/graduate students, and food experts to come into the classrooms and teach students and teachers about food and nutrition.
  • Plant gardens to get students connected to their food sources.


Step 4 – Measure and Make Adjustments

Once the strategy is implemented, data need to be measured against the set benchmarks and sometimes adjustments need to be made in the strategy to get to the desired end results.  It is critical to keep all stakeholders informed of progress and any challenges to maintain a clear path forward.


In the end, it is all about serving great food in a sustainable system.  Responsibility is not on the food service workers alone, but rather it is a shared responsibility with the school and families as well. Growing happy, healthy children should be integrated into every aspect of the school and at home. Everyone needs to get involved in some way and food can be the common thread. The ideas and ways of eating in the school dining room require support from families at home, teachers in the classroom, and school administration to be effective.


Devising a new strategy for great school food takes commitment, but it is worth the hard work to have healthy students who are engaged and better prepared to learn.  We need to honor the students we are feeding, the earth for giving us sustenance, and each other by remembering that we did not get to the fast paced, processed food world overnight.  By combining our commitment, respect, determination, and hard work, our children will learn about healthy food choices.


About Greg Christian and Karen Dittrich


Greg Christian is a sustainable foodservice consultant, chef, author, and entrepreneur. His company, Beyond Green Sustainable Food Partners, provides measured strategies and solutions for organizations interested in making the switch to more sustainable food service platforms. The company is also a local food service provider for the greater Chicago community.  Greg graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and spent his early career working in the restaurant industry. He then owned and operated his own catering business for 17 years.  When industry food systems started looking towards green initiatives, Greg started Beyond Green consulting. With years of real-life experience, he built a matrix that can help organizations focus on realistic goals and tangible outcomes.


Greg was recognized by B Corporation with the I Have a Dream Award in 2011 for his commitment to the triple bottom line philosophy, his integration of this philosophy into his own business, and bringing this philosophy to his clients through his holistic approach to projects. Greg has gained national recognition for his efforts as Founder and Developer of the Organic School Project, which established ten organic vegetable gardens in Chicago Public Schools starting in 2002. He developed the Grow.Teach.Feed. curriculum to integrate healthy eating into the classroom and cafeteria.


Karen Dittrich is the founder of Creatif Leaf Marketing, a food-marketing consulting company. Creatif Leaf Marketing focuses on developing integrated marketing and communication strategies that engage customers through food. Driven by an inherent passion for food and excellence, Karen has spent more than 25 years leveraging her collaborative leadership style, operational food service experience, and marketing skills to grow food service organizations. She served as the national marketing and communications director for Chartwells School Dining Services, supporting over 550 school districts, prior to starting Creatif Leaf Marketing.  Karen is devoted to working with schools to assist them in creating sustainable food programs that not only support students while in school, but also resonate into the extended local community.


Karen holds a bachelor degree in marketing from Clarkson University and an associate degree in culinary arts from The Culinary Institute of America. She is a member of the American Marketing Association and the National Association of Professional Women.