In December of last year, we reached out to the Recipe for Success Foundation in Houston, Texas to learn more about their Seed-to-Plate Nutrition Education™ program. RFS invited us to observe garden education and culinary/nutrition classes at the program’s flagship school, MacGregor Elementary. We also sat down with RFS founder, Gracie Cavnar, to learn more about why these programs are so important. Click to read Part One of our interview with Gracie; Part Two continues below.
Beyond Breakfast: It was fun to watch Chef Randy Evans [of Haven, a popular Houston restaurant] interact with the kids during the culinary class.
Gracie Cavnar: The kids, frankly, don’t know the difference between Randy – who we know is a big deal in Houston – and a culinary student. In the first year I had 24 volunteer chefs, and it was them and me. I would email them all and say, “We are going to do veggies! Send me your recipes!” It was insane—doing all the shopping, the collateral material, and planning and delivering twenty-four different recipes to twenty-four different classrooms in the course of the month—it was insane and not sustainable, but it was an amazing way to jump start our library of recipes and we could say, ‘this worked well, this didn’t’ and even in terms of delivery. Imagine—we had 240 recipes within a year. It’s unbelievable. We sifted through, picked the best of the best, and ran with it. In our early years we just rolled into classrooms (we didn’t have dedicated classrooms like we do now—the program is designed to do that, if it needs to); we designed portable cooking carts, and we would go in and kids would clear their desks, group into fours, and we’d put down some oil cloth.
Beyond Breakfast: How did the gardening component fall into place?
Gracie Cavnar: We started building gardens with fourth graders. They are old enough to grasp complex concepts, and young enough to still be enthralled by cool adults; somehow when they get to the fifth grade, unless you’re already factored in as someone important, fifth graders are too cool for you!
Connecting the garden to the classroom gets kids on the continuum of the plant that they are cooking; they are planting, touching, tending carrots in the garden and then cooking them in the classroom. This helps kids understand the whole food cycle, and even though most of them won’t be growing all of their own food, they can make better decisions at the grocery store. Most kids have never seen food that doesn’t come in a package; especially lower income students, but even middle-class kids.
Beyond Breakfast: It’s easy to see how your program can complement efforts to create healthier school environments [wellness policies], and reinforce the new meal standards.
Gracie Cavnar: Recipe for Success is such a win-win proposition. We all saw pushback on the new school lunch standards from the kids. Everyone is concerned about delivering a great lunch at a good price—but then the kids have to buy it and then they have to eat it. You don’t want it all ending up in the trash cans. Our programming helps train food consumers of tomorrow. We are seeing traction and change within a year, when kids are not only eating more vegetables, but—more importantly for a school nutrition [professional]—the students are more willing to try more foods. You can’t hit a kid cold with broccoli and whole wheat—they aren’t going to eat it if it’s something they haven’t seen or tried before. When students go through programs like ours, they are far more likely to be open to new foods; to try new things, and be open to the experience. That’s where the synergy is—it’s where we connect the dots. My heart goes out to school nutrition [staff] and I understand their challenge. That’s the beauty of this program—it helps the school nutrition [community] in their mission and efforts to get kids eating healthier foods; to get traction and buy-in from the kids and the faculty. We don’t pitch the program this way, because it can be a sticky wicket, but kids who eat better perform better in school. We don’t tell [our schools] “Oh, the kids are going to behave so much better” and we don’t have to, because they are telling us. “We have fewer behavior issues” is something we hear a lot.
I went up to Montana to launch “Let’s Move! Missoula” around the fall of 2012 and I met with the school nutrition folks. They were not outsourced, and completely in control. They were really focused on maximizing the commodity program to deliver fresh, whole produce and lightly prepared foods as part of their nutrition program. They proudly had a robust farm-to-school program that had a wonderful impact on their bottom line; they saved a ton of money because they were all about local, in-season, fresh, lightly prepared food. They discovered that they could deliver a healthy, fresh meal—within their budget—and the kids were eating it.
There are so many easy things you can do even if you don’t have a program like ours. You can do taste tests in the cafeteria, and sampling, to give the kids a head’s up, and an opportunity to try things before you just hit them with new foods. Also, getting kids involved in recipe development, and voting on new menu items; get the kids involved, because they like having control.
Beyond Breakfast: There often seems to be a disconnect when we talk about the twin problems of childhood obesity and childhood hunger. Is it something you’ve observed through [RFS]?
Gracie Cavnar: We do an exit and entry survey for kids in our program to get a snapshot of what they eat and how they eat it. It’s heartbreaking to see the difference in the answers on Monday versus say, Wednesday. The kids who come to school on Monday and say the day before they only ate maybe some French fries, or a bag of chips—there are these two things converging.
Beyond Breakfast: How can we help make lasting change in our eating habits, overall, and address both issues?
Gracie Cavnar: There is a lot of misperception out there about it being more expensive to eat healthy, and that is just really not true. If you eat in season, are you going to be eating steak or eating strawberries in winter? No. But if you eat seasonally, and thoughtfully, you can execute it within a budget. It means you are going to be cooking, doing more home preparation, and less eating out. The only way you can eat out on a budget is with dollar menus and junk that is so nutritionally deficient that your body is craving more because it’s not getting the nutrients you need. So if you are eating nothing but junk food, you are doing two things: First, you are eating food that is chemically modified to create an urge to eat more; hyper-palatability is built in by design. Second, you are getting none of the nutrients you need so that makes you crave more. Sadly many of these kids, it’s the only food they are getting—tons of empty calories—and they are still starving to death. One thing our program does is to make them aware that these other foods are out there. We frame it, without judgment, in a celebratory way—the sense of sharing, joy, and discovery, coming together in the kitchen or around the table that can bring. We use a variety of tools to bring the lessons home, like sending recipes and produce home with the kids. Programs at the school reach out to parents – PTO events, little farmers markets, parent nights where kids make ratatouille for the PTO, we do that kind of stuff – as a way to cross-educate the parents about this world, that their kids are liking it, and they have another option. On some of our campuses we go further and have parent classes. Kids drive the behaviors of so many families, so if a kid is clamoring for fast food you are going to wear down and give it to them; on the other hand, if they’re clamoring for carrots—hey, great! Outside of the seed-to-plate, the part of this world we work in in Houston is the food justice community. We advocate and facilitate urban agriculture. We created a grocers summit to reach out to the business community, to get the community organized to get full-service grocery stores into food deserts.
Beyond Breakfast: These are great tips and best practices. Are there any other words of wisdom you’d like to share with our readers?
Gracie Cavnar: I had the good fortune of being in the mix as the first lady’s office developed the Let’s Move! initiative, and I spent a lot of time in Washington, D.C., which was super. It was great to see what everyone else was doing, and also to see what [Mrs. Obama] was doing from her bully pulpit; she has singlehandedly brought the mass media attention to this issue. In that process we were asked to take our program to a national scale. Since then we have been focused on how to translate everything we have learned, and the library of research we have built, into something easily and affordably used by others, because why should you have to reinvent the wheel? We’ve already spent years, and, honestly, millions of dollars, developing a program that has been measured, and documented, and we know is successful; we continue to enrich that program, it’s not static. We have 320 lesson plans in our library for Pre-K through Grade 5, and for middle schoolers, for adults—we add to it. As a non-profit foundation we are focused on as many children as possible experiencing a depth of nutrition that is actually life changing—in other words, not just an awareness but understanding—and changes their behavior for life. We feel like this is the only way this issue can be turned around—training this generation, and the next, to make good healthy food decisions and backing that up with the life skills that support it. We need to create informed consumers—a generation that demands policy and product. The most exciting thing that we did was translate all of this into an affordable, affiliate partnership program that any school can plug into and adopt, and have our full support and access to our full library of resources. We have been very conservative in the roll out of the affiliate, because we wanted a robust testing period that would give us time to correct any mistakes. Now we’re taking all comers, but we’re still in the phone-answering mode and clearing the backlog of people who contacted us very early on. But in my conversations with collaborators (to me collaboration is the key to sustainable growth), the most exciting of those have been with school lunch providers who see this as an asset to their school lunch programs, and want to facilitate implementation of our program in their district or state. I’m just as excited to talk to the rural school with 200 kids and one lunch lady as I am with the district with a million kids.