Part of the Food Policy Snapshot Series

Policy name: Reimagining School Cafeterias

Overview: Nonprofit FoodCorps, which aims to connect students to healthy foods in schools, has launched a pilot program, Reimagining School Cafeterias, which creates opportunities for students to voice their opinions and make choices in the cafeteria. The program is informed by the work of many leading school districts who elevate student voice in their meal programs across the country. Reimagining School Cafeterias is made possible through FoodCorps’ partnership with for-profit Sweetgreen, a fast-casual salad chain with a focus on inspiring healthier communities.  

Location: U.S. – piloting at a total of 15 schools in Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, and Virginia 

Population: 15 schools; 7,100 students

Food policy category: Diet and Nutrition 

Program goals: To increase student engagement and choice in school nutrition program.

How it works: FoodCorps began Reimagining School Cafeterias by interviewing 300 students and 100 adults who spend time in school cafeterias.  The results of these interviews showed that students want their voices to be heard, and their perspective is clear: they value the break from academic learning that lunchtime provides, and they want a cafeteria experience that provides choices and reflects their cultural identity.. FoodCorps then partnered with Sweetgreen, which has pledged $1 million over two years to pilot three approaches for elevating student voice in meal programs: the Tasty Challenge, the Flavor Bar, and Our School Cafeteria.

In the “Tasty Challenge” students taste a fruit or vegetable that has been prepared in two different ways and then vote on their favorite. The “Flavor Bar” allows students to choose sauces, spices, and condiments they would like to see offered in the cafeteria. Through “Our School Cafeteria” students lead discussions on how to improve the cafeteria environment, and the schools work with them to implement their ideas. 

During the 2019-2020 school year, FoodCorps is piloting these programs in 15 schools across the country, and will use the findings from this first year to expand to 50 schools in 2020-2021.  Each school partners with a FoodCorps service member to help implement the program, in addition to their other service activities of teaching kids about healthy food in gardens and classrooms.  

Progress to date: Since 2011, FoodCorps has placed AmeriCorps service members in schools to teach kids about healthy food in gardens, classrooms, and cafeterias. Seeing a key opportunity to engage students further in voicing their opinions and making choices, FoodCorps conducted its research for Reimagining School Cafeterias from December 2017 to May 2018.  In March of 2019, FoodCorps partnered with Sweetgreen to develop the Reimagining School Cafeterias program, which launched as a pilot program in September 2019.  

 Why it is important: On an average school day, more than 30 million students eat meals provided by a school cafeteria.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 2007-2010, 60 percent of children did not eat the recommended amount of fruit per day and 90 percent did not eat the recommended amount of vegetables. The CDC also stated that increasing children’s fruit and vegetable intake should be a national health priority. Fruits and vegetables provide important nutrients and health benefits, and eating habits developed as children are likely to extend into adulthood. 

Schools that encourage students to eat more fruits and vegetables can improve the students’ health, particularly if they do not have access to these foods at home. Programs like those run by FoodCorps, which involve students in growing fruits and vegetables at school, learning about food and nutrition in the classroom, and making decisions about the foods to be incorporated in school lunches, may significantly enhance a child’s likelihood of eating healthier foods. 

Program/Policy Initiated: The pilot program began in schools across the US in September 2019. 

Point of contact: 

  • Erica Curry, FoodCorps Director of Education
  • Email: erica.curry@foodcorps.org 

Similar practices: Engaging students and communities in school meal programs requires the commitment and leadership of a variety of people and players: the school nutrition leaders who source and serve food to students everyday, local and national nonprofit partners, parents, and students themselves, and many other players. Key national organizations that elevate student voice include: School Nutrition Departments, National Farm to School Network, Brigaid, Wellness in the Schools, School Nutrition Association, Alliance for a Healthier Generation, Chef Ann Foundation, Share Our Strength. 

Evaluation: Evaluation is underway for this particular initiative, as the program is still in the pilot phase. However, FoodCorps reports the following data from the 2018–19 school year, collected from across the 300+ schools they partner with for their school-based program:

  • 73 percent of schools have adopted healthier practices throughout the school, from the classroom to the cafeteria, 
  • 53 percent of students have an improved attitude towards vegetables, 
  • 72 percent of school staff are very satisfied with their involvement in the program. 

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