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The classroom isn’t just for learning the A, B, Cs and 1, 2, 3s—more kids these days are also introduced to concepts like nutrition, the environment, and sustainability thanks to a crop of new partnerships between limited-service restaurants and public schools.
Fast-casual concept Sweetgreen is one such brand investing in a host of in-school and in-store programs devoted to cultivating a generation of eco-conscious kids who understand the connection between food and health. It started in the brand’s Washington, D.C., home base when local stores began offering educational sessions to the public. Brand representatives were invited to present a seminar series in D.C. schools and saw a larger opportunity. Thus, the Sweetgreen in Schools program was born.
“We’re hoping to inspire children to become defenders of wellness,” says Laura Rankin, director of Sweetgreen in Schools and Sweetgreen’s Sweetlife Festival.
The program has since expanded to schools near Sweetgreen’s New York stores and will be offered in 15 of the brand's 27 restaurants come fall.
The Sweetgreen in Schools curriculum focuses on food accessibility, healthy eating knowledge, and sustainability, which is important because about 70–80 percent of the students engaged in the program are from underserved populations in urban areas, Rankin says.
“[The program] evolved over the years to become a complete series of interactive education and nutritional classes where students learn the importance of sustainability, fitness, and eating right,” she says. “The classes are also designed to introduce the benefits of healthy eating to the children.”
The demand for healthy dining and education about it is growing, says Ashley Gaudiano, communications and public outreach manager for Wholesome Wave, an organization that targets underserved communities to promote healthy eating decisions and foster accessibility to local, affordable food.
“What we’ve found through research is that people really want to be able to feed their families with healthy, fresh, local food,” she says. “We know the desire is there.”
Gaudiano says brands like Sweetgreen can leverage their powers for good in the healthy, sustainable food education scene, and empower consumers to make better choices.
Known internally as Orange Juice classes, the in-school education seminars represent Sweetgreen’s integration into needy community schools with a unique curriculum. In-store classes, known as Apple Juice classes, are run by stores’ head coaches (general managers) and focus on nutrition, eco literacy, and more. Apple Juice classes are held about two to three times a year for each student class; they served 1,200 students from October 2013 to June 2014, Rankin says.
The Apple Juice classes last an hour and a half and end with an interactive component that lets students make their own salad, and ingredients often correspond directly to a lesson taught in the workshop.
Other lessons built into the Apple Juice curriculum include produce seasonality and the environmental impact of local sourcing. These are vital to changing the way low-income children and their families treat food and nutrition, Rankin says.
“[The students] come from a lower socioeconomic background, and the way we’re running the workshops, we really tried to make them in our stores in urban environments so there’s a lot of overlap,” she says. “We’re trying to keep the schools relatively close to our stores to have an easier time facilitating transportation.”
The program’s in-school lessons are no different. Although head coaches, who must often be evaluated by the school’s teachers, also teach the lessons, a resident educator from the school helps facilitate.
This year, the brand also partnered with FoodCorps, a nationwide team of AmeriCorps leaders focusing on connecting kids to healthy, sustainable food. Debra Eschmeyer, FoodCorps’ cofounder, says Sweetgreen and FoodCorps share similar ideologies, so the partnership was a natural step.
“[It] grew from our mutual passion for connecting kids to real food,” she says. “What’s remarkable and humbling about working in the healthy food space are the visionary leaders working together to create a larger lasting impact.”
FoodCorps receives 1 percent of all sales processed through Sweetgreen’s rewards app. The organization also received $10,000 from Sweetgreen’s 2014 Sweetlife Festival, the brand’s annual music festival for charity. In turn, FoodCorps serves as Sweetgreen’s community liaison, identifying needy populations and connecting the brand with local resources to expand the program.
“Schools should be places where chefs visit classes as guest speakers, children taste tomatoes at recess in the school garden, and farmers deliver fresh greens to the cafeteria’s new salad bar,” Eschmeyer says. “FoodCorps and Sweetgreen are both working to make that a reality for schools.”
“They use their platform of their audience and really push out the message that local, fresh food is important and everybody deserves it,” Wholesome Wave’s Gaudiano says of the Sweetgreen program. “[With] big brands, there’s really a lot of power to them putting that message out there.”
Rankin says one of the most rewarding parts for her is that workers at Sweetgreen’s stores involved in the Sweetgreen in Schools program are very invested in it.
“It’s just the energy; our team just loves it,” she says. “They know they’re giving back, and they know they’re making a difference.”