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; read Part One of our interview with Gracie below.
Beyond Breakfast: What inspired you to start Recipe for Success? Give us a little of the background that led you to this work.
Gracie Cavnar: I didn’t take a direct route to this work. I raised my own children with healthy food, and food is a centerpiece of our lives. I was an early adapter in the 1970s of making my own baby food and steering my kids away from processed foods, soft drinks, and the like; I certainly wasn’t strident about it, it was just the way we rolled! I have a background in the restaurant industry, and I also have chef training. I joined Slow Food before they had a U.S. group. Food has always been important to us. That was my frame of reference for how I lived.
I wasn’t planning to be a food advocate, so to speak. I had retired after many years of running my own company, which means I had a lot of time on my hands, which in turns means plenty of time to get into trouble! I really didn’t know how to be retired. In the mid-90s it came to my attention that there were vending machines in elementary schools around Texas. Let me say that I’m in my 60s, and even when I was in high school the high schools had vending machines and I never thought much about it. But after an entire career that revolved around marketing, I knew the power of marketing, and a soda machine in an elementary environment would expose 5-year-olds to what would be their soft drink for life; they call it a “cradle-to-grave” customer. The earlier you snare someone, the harder it is to change their habits.
Beyond Breakfast: Children develop their food habits very young.
Gracie Cavnar: What first hit me [about soda vending machines] was that this undermined parents—which isn’t to judge parents who don’t care if their kids have soda; it’s about the companies who are snaring these cradle-to-grave customers. What a deal! What a coup, in the marketing world. That’s what first got my attention. At the time, even though I was “retired,” I was writing and contributing journalist to a variety of local, regional, and national publications. As a journalist you can ask questions with impertinence that you can’t get away with in polite life, and I became interested in this and got active on two fronts: writing stories about food and organics and the state of the food scene, and I also went to Austin and met with [Texas Comptroller]] Susan Combs. She had written an op-ed, and was also incensed by this, and getting to work on it. Basically I asked borderline embarrassing questions, which started to shine a light on the amount of money that was generated by these machines, so instead of getting them ripped out what happened in Houston was that the district took the contracts over and thus took the money. In the meantime Susan Combs was effective at creative problem solving, in terms of changing the rules and regulations in Texas; in fact, this state was one of the first to [eliminate] vending machines in elementary schools.
Beyond Breakfast: Healthy vending machines are becoming more and more popular; have you seen the ones that vend foods that fall under the [USDA] regulations?
Gracie Cavnar: [Healthy vending machines] are an emerging market, and one I was hoping to keep in my quiver of strategies [for RFS] that could be helpful. I was hot to trot on it, but I just didn’t have the bandwidth for it; I applaud [healthy vending efforts] because vending is not going to just go away.
Beyond Breakfast: So, what came next after vending? What was your next step?
Gracie Cavnar: As a journalist you follow a story where it leads; this was more than marketing issues, more than parental controls, but an exploding obesity epidemic in America. This is in the mid-1990s, when the media wasn’t covering this, but the researchers were all waving their arms. The numbers were there, and it was jaw-dropping. I wondered, “Why no one was talking about this?”
I started pulling the string of the story and connecting the dots and I was shocked. The long-term effects on things like our health care system and our economy, those numbers were also out there early on, and researchers love to research so new research was taking everything a step further, and new programs were being developed based on that research, but it was all ending up on a shelf. And that’s because implementation after research is not funded. I could have a great program, and it’s been around all these years, but researchers don’t know how to promote, and there was no money for dissemination, so it was just sitting there on a shelf—and it was practically FREE! CATCH, for example, is finally starting to get traction and it’s over 20 years old! No one was there to say, “Hey, this thing is here and you should do it.” That’s how [RFS] started. I like to connect people, and bring people together, and I started doing that, which was the “first wave.” There wasn’t the right portfolio of talents at the table to move the needle.
Beyond Breakfast: So now you have to translate this information and do something with it—how did you approach that?
Gracie Cavnar: In my research I discovered three things that were the most motivating:
- The sheer level of marketing dollars being directed, particularly at children but Americans in general, to the promotion of junk food. The psychological power of marketing is a huge behemoth that any program [like R4S] will be facing. I knew whatever I did would have to fight marketing with marketing. Everybody knows you need to eat healthy, but does that mean you are going to? It’s not a secret that we need to eat healthy; the knowledge and awareness is there, but that doesn’t motivate people to eat healthy. Whatever you do, the messaging and delivery has to be powerful.
- The data and the research overwhelmingly exhibited that there are a million contributors to obesity—from more screen time to less exercise—but the biggest contributors are the food we eat, and the way we eat it. It’s not just that burgers and fries dominate our diet, but that we’re gobbling them down in the car, in ten minutes.
- This is a universal truth: Food attitudes and behaviors are set in life by age eleven. So before eleven-years-old we have the opportunity to shape and form attitudes and behaviors, but after that we are trying to change attitudes and behaviors.
Beyond Breakfast: So it’s all about grabbing their [students’] attention early?
Gracie Cavnar: If I’m a poor non-profit and I have limited funds, for best “ROI” as we say in the business world, it’s easier to help form behavior than it is to change it so you have to target young! If I’m going to be truly effective I have to use smart marketing tools, and make healthy food fun and yummy; I have to connect kids to their food in a way that is just as fun as when they get their [fast food prize]. I came across information that showed that kids who garden make better food choices, and kids who cook eat healthier; that’s when I said, “Hello! Let’s combine those two things!” Let’s show kids the entire cycle of food; let’s get chefs involved, because who better to help inject a little excitement into the concept of cooking? Chefs started getting really hot in the late ‘90s and early 2000s; the Food Network was making them celebrities, which is kind of a new thing. So who better to help from a marketing standpoint than chefs, who can get outside attention for the program, but also get the kids’ attention. Chefs have a lot of training in nutrition, and they can take that knowledge, and the tools at their disposal, to turn it into something that is yummy, while also injecting it with interesting things like the history, science, culture, and math of food. All of that is in the chef’s pantheon of awareness, and they bring that fun and “juice” to the class. The kids teach the chefs like rock stars!
Don’t forget to check back for Part Two of our interview with RFS founder Gracie Cavnar; in the meantime, catch up with Part One, Part Two, and Part Three of our Recipe for Success series, and connect with RFS on Facebook and Twitter!