[The following is a transcript of QSR’s latest podcast episode. Stream the episode above, or click here to view the entire Fast Forward archive.]

On a mild, sunny Friday near the end of October, a group of six-year-olds files into a cafeteria in Alexandria, Virginia. A few split off to find seats among the dozen or so empty tables, hauling with them lunch boxes sporting the likes of Chase from Paw Patrol or Elsa from Frozen.

The rest of the kindergarten class marches through the line that will lead them into a bright kitchen, where they’ll collect that day’s hot food item: pizza. (It’s Friday after all.) But their first stop in the lunch line—in fact, the very first thing they see when they arrive at the cafeteria—is a salad bar, filled with fresh foods like salad greens, tomatoes, and hard-boiled eggs.

READ MORE: Sweetgreen hits the $1.6 billion mark, plans “Outpost” expansion

This is Mount Eagle Elementary, one of more than 130 elementary schools in the Fairfax County Public School system. Most of the students at Mount Eagle live in poverty; nearly 75 percent of them qualify for reduced-price or free school lunches. And for many of them, this salad bar is their only source for fresh food in the week.  

JEAN CONSOLLA: “We have children that are coming to school hungry. We have kids that their parents might not have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. They might not have lots of time to prepare really good meals. So they’re relying on pre-packaged things. They’re relying on, what can I get across the street at a convenience store?”

That’s Jean Consolla, Mount Eagle’s principal. She’s a gregarious leader who mills about the cafeteria, interacting with the students with equal parts authority and tenderness.

The salad bar was installed a few years ago, under Consolla’s watch.

JC: “With our salad bar, kids have to go into that to get into the kitchen. We are highly intentional about that. Because we know that when kids fill up their trays with beautiful fruits and vegetables that are right there, they’re more likely to just build that habit. It’s like, Oh, so my plate looks kind of empty or weird or something, because it doesn’t have all these beautiful fruits and vegetables that I always start every meal with.”

The salad bars are no doubt an incredible resource for the students at Mount Eagle. But the students here, who range from kindergarten through sixth grade, have another advantage in the battle to be healthy. They get lessons on nutrition and healthy eating, plus they get to do hands-on learning through cooking activities, taste-testing new vegetables, and even planting vegetables in a garden outside the school. There are even plans in place to engage the student’s parents about nutritious eating.

These educational resources are all thanks to a member of FoodCorps who is stationed at Mount Eagle. Part of the AmeriCorps service network, FoodCorps is a national nonprofit whose mission is to connect kids to healthy food in school, and to create a future where all children know what healthy food is, care where it comes from, and eat it every day.

Curt Ellis is FoodCorps’ cofounder. In 2007, Ellis produced and starred in the documentary “King Corn,” which explored the effects of corn production in the U.S.

While he traveled around promoting the film, Ellis says he was inspired to see how many young people wanted to commit their careers to building a more sustainable food system. And after President Obama signed the Serve America Act in 2009—an act that expanded the AmeriCorps program and encouraged more volunteerism, service, and community engagement, particularly in low-income communities—Ellis says he saw a way to put those young people to work.

FoodCorps launched in 2010, aiming to address a childhood health crisis in America.  

CURT ELLIS: “Our current food system has resulted in a situation where one in six kids are growing up in a food-insecure household where they don’t regularly have enough healthy food on the table at home. And one in three kids is already showing the early signs of diet-related disease. And it’s also a food system that discriminates, where one in two of our kids of color are on track to develop Type 2 diabetes during their lifetimes. And if we let those health trajectories play out, diet-related disease is going to hold this generation of young people back in that they’ll attain less education, they’ll be out sick more at work, they’ll progress less in their careers, they’ll be forced out of the workforce younger, and ultimately die with fewer of their dreams fulfilled. And that’s just not an acceptable reality in today’s America.”

With help from members who commit to a year of service, FoodCorps helps schools in three significant ways. First, it provides hands-on lessons, like with the gardening and cooking. Second, it teams with cafeteria staff in steering students toward healthier food choices. Finally, it promotes a schoolwide culture of health, rallying the school community to celebrate health wherever possible.

In the 2019-2020 school year, FoodCorps is supporting 250 service members in 375 schools across 18 states and Washington, D.C.—still just a drop in the bucket compared with the big picture.

CE: “Our nation’s school meal program is essentially our largest restaurant chain. There’s 100,000 school cafeterias in the country and 30 million kids a day who are eating school food. It’s a pretty big operation, and it’s governed and guided by some really intense restrictions. The ways in which federal policy plays out from a really well-intentioned public health standpoint is also really burdensome for school food leaders to navigate. And the way that the financial picture of school food works is a typical school meal program is working with about $1 to buy the ingredients for school lunch each day for a kid. And that’s just not enough budget to have school lunch look like a Sweetgreen salad looks right now.”

Ellis isn’t picking Sweetgreen at random. The red-hot salad fast casual recently became one of FoodCorps’ most significant corporate partners when it pledged $1 million over two years to support the organization’s mission.

Sweetgreen has been committed to school education since its early days as a startup fast casual in D.C. In 2009, the company developed a program called Sweetgreen in Schools, through which it used its own staff to teach a healthy-eating curriculum to local elementary schools. It reports having reached about 9,000 students through the program.

But cofounder Nathaniel Ru says Sweetgreen in Schools was hard to scale up, especially as the brand expanded to the Northeast and the West Coast. So in 2018, the company started having conversations with FoodCorps around how it could support the nonprofit’s mission using Sweetgreen’s resources and expertise.

In particular, Sweetgreen is supporting FoodCorps’ Reimagining School Cafeterias platform in 15 schools around the country. Ru says the platform covers three specific strategies related to the cafeteria experience.

NATHANIEL RU: “The three revolve around how you make healthy and nutritious food a little bit more interactive for the everyday student. We’re really focused on one pillar called the Flavor Bar, which is a self-serve bar in cafeterias where students can customize their meal with different spices and sauces and almost make their own creation, similar to how you would do at Sweetgreen. There’s another one called the Tasty Challenge, which is almost like a taste-test model that includes preparing food two different ways. For example, we could do roasted carrots and raw carrots, and encouraging students to really try all of them and using an iPad or using a tech-enabled way to choose and vote on their favorites. So it’s almost this kind of crowd-sourced voting option within these cafeterias. And then the last one is how we can encourage more choice and voice from the students in terms of how they want their cafeterias designed—whether it’s cool murals in the cafeteria or different input from the student body to really make it their own and make it feel like a place where they feel really inspired and connected to eat.”

[float_image image=”https://www.qsrmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/SWEETGREEN-SCHOOLS-2_1.jpg” width=”50″ link=”” caption=”In the Tasty Challenge, FoodCorps members invite students to sample new foods prepared two ways, and students then vote on their favorite using an iPad.
” alt=”Sweetgreen Invests Resources To Teach American Students In Health And Nutrition” align=”left” /]

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.”

[float_image image=”https://www.qsrmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/SWEETGREEN-SCHOOLS-3.jpg” width=”50″ link=”” caption=”FoodCorps member Taylor Brinks, left, explores the garden with students outside Mount Eagle Elementary in Alexandria, Virginia.
” alt=”Sweetgreen Partners With Nonprofit To Educate Students On Fresh Food” align=”right” /]

Bumpus drives home the point that students’ participation in the FoodCorps’ program is a lot like a Sweetgreen experience. Just as Sweetgreen guests are empowered to make their own decisions in building a salad or bowl, Mount Eagle students are given what she calls “choice and voice” over their cafeteria experience.

Of course, the Sweetgreen team isn’t working with FoodCorps because they think they can convert elementary students into Sweetgreen customers. That would be foolish. Bumpus says the company is measuring the success of this partnership by how it can take the learnings from this pilot program and turn them into an educational model that is scalable across the country. For now, it’s baby steps; Sweetgreen and FoodCorps will expand the program from 15 schools to 50 next year.

But Ellis does say there is some business sense to all of this. Restaurants have to consider the plight of school nutrition for the simple fact that the 30 million children eating in cafeterias today will turn into 30 million foodservice customers in the future, and improving the food system for them today will support an even better food system in the future, too.

CE: “Restaurant partners have a real obligation to think critically about what is the role we want food to play in the lives of their customers and in the lives of the families they interact with. And I would hope that anyone who thinks seriously about that question reaches a kind of holistic conclusion, which is, we need a food system, and therefore we need a restaurant chain that is thinking about sustainability and sourcing in a way that our planet is going to be healthy for the long term. And that’s thinking about the health of consumers and making sure that folks who are eating in those places day in and day out are going to live up to their full potential because they’re going to feel good and they’re going to be in good health.”

When it comes to childhood nutrition, Ru says restaurants have two primary responsibilities.

NR: “One is for your restaurant: What medium is right to connect with kids and that next generation when it comes to your food? I would call that more what access you’re providing them, whether it’s different packaging or a different kind of story around food. At Sweetgreen, we really want students and kids to be able to eat the things that their parents are eating, and really try to not do too much different to the ingredients and the recipes that we have, because we believe that it should be the same food as the food that your parents are eating. At other restaurants, it’s a little bit different. There’s also this kind of responsibility of restaurant companies to think about the education behind it and the storytelling. Healthy food and supply chain and local sourcing and organics, it’s very complicated, and there’s a lot of nuance to it. [It’s about] having companies find ways to make the complex simple when it comes to some of these concepts and ideas—and really finding ways to make healthy eating cool. That’s what we’re focused on: How do we take these great products and recipes and ingredients and connect with students in ways that connect with culture or lifestyle or whatever their passion points may be, and make healthy eating, for lack of a better term, cool.”

Later that day in October, the class of kindergarteners goes outside to take a look at the progress in their garden. The kids are mostly distracted by all the open space surrounding the gardens; instincts kick in and they start to chase each other and scream. But more than a few cluster together with the FoodCorps leader, Brinks, looking intently at some small tomatoes that have grown on their vines.

At some point a girl stands and shouts, “I love karate!”

She means kohlrabi. Well, probably. For the students at Mount Eagle, at least that’s a sign of progress. And who knows: Maybe it’s a step in the right direction for the restaurant industry, too.  

Fast Casual, Health & Wellness, Story, Sustainability, Sweetgreen