Why I Want to Bring #RealFood to 100,000 Schools Across America

American children are being fed processed, nutrient-poor food that leaves them starving and obese at the same time.  Our food system is destroying their growing bodies and minds. With an estimated $63.5 trillion in total private wealth, America is more wealthy than any other country in the world. Yet our children are bearing the burden of a broken, even lethal food system.

Today, diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States and costs the country around $245 billion in medical expenses and lost productivity each year. We are not setting our kids up for a healthy future when we fail to teach them how to nourish their bodies and their minds. Inadequate access to healthy foods, in particular veggies and fruits, can lead to preventable chronic diseases that affect children into adolescence and beyond.  I am talking about kids feeling healthy and going to school, graduating from school, getting a job and starting a family. Habits form early and so should a good diet. It all starts with real food.

About six years ago, I co-founded a non-profit organization to join the movement to help get kids excited about real food. Prior to this, I was lucky enough to be involved with a few school garden initiatives in my own community in Colorado. I was astonished to see how excited the kids were to plant, harvest, and EAT vegetables that they had grown. I learned first-hand that school gardens are associated with the most positive changes in students’ fruit and vegetable intake. I couldn’t stand by as obesity ravished our nation. I wanted to see the same enthusiasm that the kids in my community had for real food, in hundreds of other communities across our great nation. For context, up until this point, building two school gardens per year was considered a strong achievement. What if there were beautiful Learning Gardens in every school in America that would show our kids the path to a thriving future on real food?

In 2011, I wanted answers, so I started building Learning Gardens in schools around my community and surrounding cities. We were a small but fierce team and called ourselves The Kitchen Community (TKC). We had success in Denver with the support of Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper. We went to California to build gardens in LA, Compton, and Hawthorne School Districts. We went to Chicago with the incredible support from the City of Chicago and Mayor Rahm Emanuel and built 100 Learning Gardens in one calendar year! Next up was Memphis with 100 Learning Gardens and Pittsburgh with 50 Learning Gardens in only two years. In 2016 we went to Indianapolis where we  now have 30 Learning Gardens across IPS and are on our way to 100 schools by the end of 2018. ? It’s been a whirlwind of excitement around real food and yes, my questions were answered. Real food education makes a powerful difference.

I am even more convinced of the difference after seeing and hearing all of the inspiring stories from the communities we have joined. One of my favorite stories is of a high school senior who became involved in the Learning Garden we built at her high school on the south side of Chicago. In January of 2017, her doctor diagnosed her as a pre-diabetic. A chilling and scary diagnosis for such a young girl. In just six months after getting her hands dirty planting real food in her school’s Learning Garden and going through our food literacy program, she started eating healthy; and in November last year, she reversed the course of a life-threatening illness. With the help of a Learning Garden, she is no longer pre-diabetic.  

Our success in six American cities is why today, I’m incredibly humbled to announce that my organization is stepping out as a national nonprofit called Big Green. I’m joined by some of the most incredible entrepreneurs in the nation. Our national board members Antonio Gracias, Barry Didato, Cindy Mercer, RJ Melman, and Michael Tang bring deep entrepreneurial and business expertise. We’ve also been working with the nation’s top educators, like Big Green board member and Memphis Superintendent Dorsey Hopson, to craft programming and curriculum that equitably and effectively teaches kids about food, entrepreneurship, and science through hands-on and project-based learning.

We’ve worked hard to develop and build innovative food literacy programs. The Kitchen Community has partnered with Common Threads, an industry leader in nutrition and health education and curriculum development, to co-author Garden Bites, our nutrition and health curriculum for school gardens. Garden Bites invites elementary and middle school students to dig into real food through hands-on nutrition and health lessons. Our programming makes sure schools have the skills they need to sustain a productive garden. The Garden Bites curriculum is accompanied with teacher trainings to further support our teachers in using the Learning Garden as an outdoor classroom. We make sure students can enjoy harvests from at least two full growing seasons each year – no matter where the schools are located in America: Colorado to Chicago to Memphis. Garden Bites curriculum is now being taught in hundreds of Big Green schools nationwide.

Our BIG vision to change food in America to impact ALL kids, and particularly the most underserved with healthy, vibrant futures, is becoming a reality. In addition to announcing our national non-profit Big Green, I’m also eager to announce that we will join the Detroit community – our seventh city –  to build Learning Gardens in 100 schools across the Motor City.  7 cities means 700 Learning Gardens. ?

Over the past year we have explored Detroit and learned how resilient the city is — filled with passionate and dedicated residents who care about the future of their kids and schools. Our expansion to Detroit is only possible because of the generous corporate, foundation, and individual donors who collectively gave $2 million dollars at the start of this New Year. It’s nearly half of the $5 million capital campaign necessary to build beautiful, outdoor Learning Garden classrooms in 100 schools in Detroit. Our local partners helping make this dream possible include: Gordon Food Service, Pathways Foundation, the Detroit Pistons, and philanthropist Carole Ilitch. Teachers and Principals across Detroit can start applying NOW for a Learning Garden at their school. Shovels hit Detroit soil in April to build our first Learning Gardens.

With every new city we join, it means new jobs locally. In Detroit, we’ve hired Ken Elkins, a Michigan native and long-time metro Detroit resident, as our Detroit Regional Director. He is now hiring a local team of Garden Educators, Project Managers, and other positions.

We are also eyeing Colorado Springs, Colo., Louisville, Ky., Long Beach, Calif., and San Antonio, Texas, for expansion to build 100 Learning Gardens in each of those cities.

There are 100,000 schools across America. I am focusing first on impacting high-need and underserved students — because sadly, these communities bear the brunt of obesity-related diseases.  Eventually we will reach every kid in all 100,000 schools in America because every child deserves to thrive in healthy environments that connect them to real food.

This ambitious goal will require a significant investment of resources, funding, and human capital. We must scale in order to fundamentally and radically alter the school food environment and ensure that all kids nationwide enjoy healthier futures through real food. While we’ve engaged some of the top US companies like Wells Fargo, Gordon Food Service, Chipotle, The Kitchen, Walmart, we need more American companies to join our efforts.

Reaching 100,000 schools in our lifetime is not something I can do by myself. This is a BIG effort for everyone in America. We must all try to make a Big Green effort to be part of the real food solution. I’m now asking you — CEOs, Governors, Superintendents, parents, and teachers — to support real food education. It’s time to step up to make real food in America a possibility before industrial food takes another child’s life.

Every student in all 100,000 schools in America deserves the opportunity to play, learn, and grow in a healthy community. Go to biggreen.org/hello and sign our pledge to get real about real food. This will also ensure you are up to date on our latest news at Big Green because I promise … BIG things are coming.