By now, Sweetgreen’s rise to becoming a foodservice darling—one valued at $1.6 billion—is well documented. Founded by Ru, Jonathan Neman, and Nicolas Jammet in 2007 just after they’d graduated from Georgetown University, Sweetgreen has used premium salads and a tech-forward experience to create a massively popular lifestyle brand with nearly 100 locations across the U.S.
Less documented, however, may be the company’s sustainability and philanthropy initiatives.
NR: “Even from day one when we started in D.C., it was always, How do we figure out how to leave communities better than we found them? And how do we make sure that the things that we do, whether it's selling food or throwing music festivals or connecting with culture, it ladders up to that mission. And we, outside of helping the next generation learn about healthy food, we think it's just important as a company to make sure that our mission and everything that we do ladders up to that. And so this is in that sweet spot and something that we're also, as founders, really passionate about.”
So passionate about it, in fact, that the company brought on a senior team member who ensures Sweetgreen is putting its money where its mouth is.
Kirby Bumpus started as Sweetgreen’s head of social impact and inclusion in 2018. A veteran of former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative, Bumpus is now in charge of Sweetgreen’s legacy beyond the four walls of its restaurants.
KIRBY BUMPUS: “We think about how do we go beyond our restaurant and beyond our customer to touch those communities that we want to have the greatest impact on. So we do work around food access, food education, and really just thinking differently about the food system.”
Sweetgreen has worked to better its social impact outside schools, too. It partnered with the Los Angeles Food Policy Council’s Healthy Neighborhood Market Network to transform a market in a food desert in South L.A. It installed compost services and pickup at all of it stores, diverting 60 percent of its waste from landfills and composting 75 percent of its food scraps. And it established the Sweetgreen Family Fund, which provides emergency financial support for team members in need using voluntary payroll deductions from other team members.
But Bumpus says childhood education in particular is critical to the kind of change Sweetgreen hopes to impart.
KB: “We want to change the way that people think about food, and kids are the next generation of healthy eaters. And so for us, it's incredibly important to set them up for success, empower them, and let them know that their voices are important, which is why student choice and voice, and a youth-empowerment approach is such an important aspect of the program.”
Just about every restaurant company in America has some philanthropic effort or another that it’s pledged to support, and there are countless organizations dedicated to children in particular. But childhood nutrition is a favorite cause among restaurant brands. One of the industry’s most popular charitable partners is Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry, which boasts several restaurant partners that have raised millions of dollars to combat childhood hunger. Aside from advocacy, research, and policy, No Kid Hungry helps to provide access to school breakfasts, summer meals, and after-school meals for kids in need.
What is it about the restaurant industry and companies like Sweetgreen that make them uniquely qualified to fight childhood hunger and provide better access to healthy foods? Ellis from FoodCorps says the industry can offer far more than financial donations in striving to make a long-lasting impact.
CE: “I think what's really different about the restaurant space is, these are people who understand the daily challenge of really large-scale foodservice operations. And there is no more intimidating large-scale foodservice operation in the country than our school meal program. And figuring out how we approach school meals with as much creativity and innovation and continued forward progress as possible—that opens the opportunity for a corporate partner like Sweetgreen to come to the table and say, ‘How can I lend not only resources to this effort, but some of our creativity, our expertise, or what we see coming up in the trends or the way food is headed in our country?’”
Back in the Mount Eagle cafeteria, FoodCorps member Taylor Brinks walks from table to table, administering the nonprofit’s Tasty Challenge. This is an activity where students are served a fruit or vegetable that’s been prepared two ways, and then the kids are encouraged to give feedback on their favorite one.
On this particular day, the ingredient of choice is kohlrabi, a vegetable that’s similar to cabbage, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts. The kohlrabi is offered to the students both raw and cooked, and then they’re asked to vote via iPad on which of the two was their favorite.
Bumpus says this kind of interactivity with elementary students makes learning more fun and memorable.
KB: “Being able to bring tech and an iPad so that kids are not only interacting with food, but they feel like they're playing a game at the same time. For us, that's just another layer to the program. At our core, we are a salad company; we make a great salad. But we are also a very tech-focused and tech-forward company. So for us, that was the right way to infuse tech into real food and into this program. I'd say that's been a massive learning for us.”