The USDA is Lowering Nutritional Standards for School Meals—and Undermining the Health of Millions of Kids

Nicolas Jammet, sweetgreen cofounder, Fast Company

School meals offer a powerful opportunity to change the trajectory of the health of an entire generation. Giving kids access to real food is the single best thing that can be done to both prevent diet-related disease and provide all the benefits of good nutrition. There is no place more important than our school cafeterias, a place where many kids get their only dependable meal in a day.

In the absence of governmental requirements, other organizations are stepping up. At the forefront is the 11-year-old nonprofit FoodCorps, which connects kids to healthy food in school through education and by advocating for larger changes in policy, culture, and the school-food marketplace. FoodCorps’s in-school programs, which feature hands-on learning and steer students toward the healthiest choices in their cafeterias, help kids access healthy food and get them excited to eat it too. Last year alone, FoodCorps reached 160,000 students, supported 500 school gardens, introduced 275 new foods to cafeterias, and engaged 5,500 volunteers.

Almost a decade ago, we launched Sweetgreen in Schools, an initiative focused on teaching students about nutrition, fitness, sustainability, seasonality, and eco-literacy. This program, which has evolved into a series of interactive classes, has since introduced the benefits of healthy eating to thousands of students, with a focus on those in underserved communities. This year, we took these efforts a step further by partnering with FoodCorps to reimagine school cafeterias and commit to their reWorking Lunch initiative, which leverages the power of more than a dozen industry, philanthropic, non-profit, and school-district partners to find ways to offer kids healthier and more sustainable school food.

Through this partnership, we are providing $1 million in funding to support the next phase of FoodCorps’s work in cafeterias. We’re helping them use a human-centered design approach to implement taste tests in school, where students can try foods prepared several different ways and vote on their favorite using an iPad. We’re also helping to create flavor bars, where students can experience fruits and vegetables with new spices and herbs. In other words, we’re piloting new ways to guide students to experiment with real food with the goal of helping them make healthier choices every day. The initial prototype for these tests is already in the cafeterias of five schools that encompass a geographically and socioeconomically diverse set of students. Sweetgreen and FoodCorps plan to reach up to 50 schools and 22,000 elementary school students by the 2020–21 school year, and we’ll grow from there.