By: Nancy Easton
I was staring at 50 (a handful of years ago now) and felt a sense of urgency. Wellness in the Schools had been doing some incredible work, making incremental change in schools around the country. But this was not enough. And, I had never seen so much interest and effort in school food. It was time to capitalize on this momentum. I stepped out of my comfort zone and took a risk. I started the School Food Innovation Lab.
I took a risk and invited a small group of Food Service Directors and organization leaders for a two day convening to envision what is possible for school meals. More specifically, to discuss ways to help all districts in our country accelerate their journey towards a higher percentage of scratch cooked meals. No easy task.
We came together from all over our country – from Arlington, Austin, Boulder, DC, Minneapolis, NYC. We came to innovate. We came with the spirit of collaboration. We rolled up our sleeves and worked together because the change we all want to see in school meals is not something that any one of us can do alone. We still walk into most school cafeterias in this country and see heat and serve, processed meals. The work of the School Food Innovation Lab participants is alternative and progressive. Together, we discussed how to make our scratch cooking practices the norm for the 31 million children who rely on school meals daily. We were a deliberately small and selective group of fewer than 15 participants. This allowed us to not only innovate, but to also be nimble, and focus on delivering results. And, we are.
Together, we will design a coaching program and provide a resource database to help the 14,000 districts in this country take a step forward in their journey towards eliminating processed foods and instead, to cook from scratch. “We did this because we came [as] listeners, and were pushed to think in big thoughts,” said Anneliese Tanner, Food Service Director, Austin, Texas. Or, as our very own Stephen O’Brien from NYC shared: “The group was small, the discussions were targeted, and the walls were broken down, allowing for honest dialogue. We kept it on point, and we moved along.”
This work would not have been possible without funding from the Life Time Foundation, without support from the small team at Whole Kids Foundation and without the team of 12 who joined us last month. Everyone put their egos aside and came with the spirit of collaboration, best described by Chef Ann Cooper, whose words propelled me to take this risk: “I just want to help school food in America. What comes out of this doesn’t have anyone’s logo. [It’s] for the common good. “
We all took a risk together, with a collective vision of possibility.
Photo credit: Evan Sung @evansungnyc