Building a Sustainable Lunch Program

Building a Sustainable Lunch Program

Judi Shils, executive director of Turning Green, shares her empowering experiences of integrating wholesome, sustainable principles in the lunchroom

By Judi Shils

In 2013, Turning Green, the organization I co-founded along with my daughter, was eight years old. Our programs had successfully engaged thousands of students in the transition from "conventional to conscious" living, helping them make environmentally sustainable and socially responsible changes in their lives, school campuses, and local communities.

But what were we doing in our own backyard, for our own community? How were we working to better the lives of those closest to us?

It was around that time that I became inspired through our Eco Top Chef program to do something about how and what we're feeding our children at school. I observed the trash cans in school dining halls filled with pre-packaged, processed, heat-and-serve meals, and knew something had to change, not at any slow pace. What if we could feed our children the absolute highest quality, most delicious, and sustainable food every day at school within budget. Food that would nurture and nourish children the way it's supposed to. In addition, what if we developed a Garden and Nutrition Curriculum that supported such a program to improve food literacy and engage students and families in a deeper appreciation and understanding of the journey of food from farm-to-fork.

I knew that vision needed to become a reality. With support from the the Sausalito Marin City School District, Executive Chef Justin Everett of Cavallo Point Lodge and Good Earth Natural Foods, we created and launched a pilot program in August 2013 called The Conscious Kitchen. The site was at Bayside MLK Jr. Academy in Marin City, California. The criteria for all food was fresh, local, organic, seasonal, non-GMO – we call it FLOSN. It included breakfast, lunch, and snack daily, over 300 meals, all cooked fresh from scratch in an on-site kitchen by a Head Chef and team. We also worked to deepen community involvement through a garden build-out, providing food for the kitchen, and volunteer opportunities and food access for parents and community members.

The response was overwhelming. Discipline cases dropped; attendance and academics improved. There was far less waste. Students and teachers began sharing meals together and students began relating to each other with kindness and open communication.

The garden at Bayside MLK supplements the food being offered in The Conscious Kitchen, and exposes students to a more in-depth, first-hand experience of cultivating and growing their own food, while fostering a personal connection between their work in the garden and the FLOSN food they eat in school. The time students spend in the garden allows them to fully experience the farm-to-school concept that lies at the heart of both the garden and The Conscious Kitchen program.

Now, going into its third year, The Conscious Kitchen is thriving and so are its students. In Fall 2015, The Conscious Kitchen launched its second school site at Willow Creek Academy, also in the Sausalito Marin City School District. On August 25, our two schools and their 550 students formed the very first 100% organic and non-GMO school district in the country. A milestone that we are extremely proud of. The next goal is to work with superintendents across all of Marin County to make each school district in the region one that serves FLOSN school meals to students. We know this is achievable, but not only achievable, it is our responsibility as the stewards of our future generations to do all that we can to ensure health and well being. 

I believe that one person is all it takes to change the world. One person, with one idea, however small it may be. The Conscious Kitchen hasn't changed the whole world – not yet, at least – but it has made a difference in the lives of the growing body of students it serves. All you need is intention. The success of our program proves that not only is it possible to serve fresh, healthy food that stays within USDA guidelines and school board budgets, but that students thrive when you nourish and empower them. If there's one thing I've learned from this process, it's this: No matter who you are or where you come from, you have that same power to do something positive in your community, to be the change you wish to see. Dream and do!

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