By. Debbie Friedman, Program Director, The Conscious Kitchen
In the dining hall at Willow Creek Academy, a long line of eager kids winds its way toward the delicious aromas from the serving area, where chefs and fellow student servers with smiling faces await. The typical heat and serve, overly processed, and pre-packaged lunches are nowhere in sight. Instead, the students’ trays are filled with a bounty of freshly cooked organic shepherd’s pie with a mélange of roasted squash; Conscious Kitchen slaw with romaine, cabbage and carrots; and scrumptious tangerines. The scratch cooked food is served on reusable serve-ware, reducing packaging waste. Produce and ingredients are sourced directly through partnerships with local organic farmers, ranchers, and food purveyors. Chefs and Conscious Kitchen Ambassadors adorned with aprons serve the food, encourage children to taste the offerings, help clear tables, and guide students toward the zero-waste station after meals are finished.
This paradigm shifting school food program is called The Conscious Kitchen (TCK). A program of the nonprofit group Turning Green, TCK partners with schools and school districts to transition school food from pre-packaged, processed, heat and serve to fresh, local, organic, seasonal, non-GMO (which we call FLOSN) meals prepared by chefs in on-site, zero-waste kitchens. The program is accompanied by an interdisciplinary garden, nutrition, and culinary curriculum. Students learn about the food chain following it from seed to fork as they plant, cultivate, harvest, prepare, serve, and eat FLOSN food. As a result, they are developing knowledge, tools, and habits they need to live healthier, more productive lives.
Now celebrating its fifth year, the program was founded at Bayside MLK Academy in Marin City, through a partnership between TCK, Executive Chef Justin Everett of Cavallo Point Lodge, the Sausalito Marin City School District, and Good Earth Natural Foods. Believing access to healthy food for all children is a right, not a privilege, Marin City was a natural choice for Sausalito-based Conscious Kitchen Executive Director, Judi Shils. Marin City is a food insecure neighborhood; more than 95% of Marin City students qualify for free-and-reduced government-subsidized school meals (FRM). This issue is not limited to Marin City. In California, 58% of students are eligible for FRM. Nationally, 73.3% of school lunches served in FY2016 were FRM. For a growing number of children in the U.S., the meals they eat at school are their primary source of nutrition.
What about price? Relationships with a local chef and independent grocer allow the schools to leverage their pricing and strong relationships with vendors. TCK food prices average $1.50 for breakfast and $2.65 for lunch. Keeping school food dollars in the community strengthens the local economy. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, for every school food dollar spent locally, another dollar of local economic activity is generated. During the 2016-17 school year, the two TCK schools spent approximately $90,000 on food, leading to a total of $180,000 of local economic activity.
The partnership with a local community chef also creates mentorship opportunities. Chef Everett serves as a mentor for the school chef, and students from the two schools have the opportunity to work with Everett’s Cavallo Point team in a professional kitchen, gaining vocational skills.
Rather than put a band-aid on an entrenched, systemic problem, TCK’s model is comprehensive and community driven. The program emphasizes building capacity within school communities. TCK’s team works closely with parents, teachers, students, and school leadership, providing them with information, resources, and tools to advocate for and implement change. Once implemented, the schools and districts own and operate the Conscious Kitchens.
Community partnerships are integral to success, allowing for a more sustainable and robust program. Partners and stakeholders in the Sausalito Marin City School District include Marin County Health and Human Services; University of California, San Francisco Family Health Outcomes Project (FHOP); Zero Waste Marin; Marin City Health and Wellness Center; and the Agricultural Institute of Marin.
TCK’s model also creates a more equitable school food environment and reduces the stigma often associated with participation in the National School Lunch Program. Prior to the Conscious Kitchen program at Willow Creek Academy, 120 students on FRM programs were eating school lunches. Within the first week of TCK’s program in 2015-16, that number more than doubled: 280 students (FRM + paid students) were eating. The number has remained static throughout ensuing years. Many teachers also eat TCK meals and join the children during lunch. Conversations over shared meals create conditions for authentic engagement, and strengthened relationships between students and teachers.
The program also prompts a shift in school culture and provides unique, project-based learning opportunities. Willow Creek Academy 2nd grade teacher, Kelly Browning, states “Through TCK’s Ambassador leadership program, children have a safe and joyful place to shine; working side by side with chefs in their school kitchen, serving food to their peers, providing menu input, discussing the “Food of the Month,” monitoring the zero-waste station, and through field trips to local farms. Community family dinners are an opportunity for faculty, parents, and children from the two schools in our district to join together, prepare, and eat meals together. This strengthens community bonds and offers new ways for children to engage with their parents and friends.”
Why organic? One of the unique aspects of this model is its emphasis on using school food dollars to strengthen the local organic food supply, or “school supported agriculture.” Organic farming strengthens soil, improves biodiversity, uses fewer pesticides, and traps carbon associated with global warming in the soil.
There are many reasons to avoid pesticides, especially for children, whose organs and brains are still developing. For example, exposure to pesticides is linked to childhood cancers, neurobehavioral effects, physical development effects, endocrine effects, asthma, and lowered IQs. Hormone altering chemicals in agricultural pesticides are associated with chronic health issues like obesity and diabetes. Organic, grass fed meat has heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids; more conjugated linoleic acid, a type of fat that is thought to reduce heart disease and cancer risks; and more antioxidants.
Healthier children can focus better in class and are sick less often. According to Dr. Jennifer Rienks, Associate Director of FHOP, during a demonstration week in the West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD), “Kids were significantly more likely to eat fruits and vegetables when The Conscious Kitchen was serving school lunch than with the regular school lunch. Eating fruits and vegetables can make a big difference in how well students do in school, and the test scores they get.”
What’s next? TCK is proud to partner with WCCUSD, beginning the school food transition with two schools in the district as a first step. WCCUSD is comprised of 55 schools, serving over 30,000 students, 70% of whom live below the poverty line, qualifying for free and reduced price school meals. The student population is diverse and representative of the state’s rapidly changing demographics: 53% of students at WCCUSD identify as Hispanic/Latino, 10% White, and 17% African American. As such, it is an important district to test, measure, and improve the school food framework as we look to expand this program across California, and as a launching pad for nationwide adoption. Please see our short film and learn more about plans for WCCUSD here.
Interested in bringing TCK to your school? Check out our Resources page, webinar, and FAQs. Also check out our short film highlighting TCK in the Sausalito Marin City School District, and where you can meet our founder, Judi Shils, and TCK Executive Chef, Guillaume Pfahl.
Most importantly, please join us as we ignite a farm to school revolution in this country!
About the Author
Debbie Friedman is an attorney who practiced business law in San Francisco for 5 years. Since leaving the practice of law to pursue environmental work, Debbie has served in a variety of advocacy, communications, and leadership positions including as producer for EcoTalk Radio, which aired nationally on Air America Radio, and as a communications consultant for innovative nonprofits and businesses. Debbie has also co-founded and led two environmental health nonprofits. In her role at Moms Advocating Sustainability, Debbie led policy initiatives and organized coalitions, with an emphasis on shifting agricultural policies toward ecologically-oriented practices, to reduce the amount of pesticides sprayed by state and local agencies. Debbie was also lead organizer and negotiator with County Government Officials in a successful 2009 campaign to revise Marin County’s regulations to substantially reduce the use of pesticides on County property. Prior to joining The Conscious Kitchen team as Program Director, she was a co-founder and served as Executive Director of GMOScience, a science-based educational and information platform that addresses the costs, risks, and benefits of genetically engineered food. Debbie was selected in 2011 as a “Marin Hero for Children” by Marin Advocates for Children.