Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a first step.” A new California-based program has taken the first step to transform school dining in the United States to organic, local, and non-GMO meals.
The Conscious Kitchen helped California’s Sausalito Marin City School District become the first US school district to provide meals that are 100% organic and non-GMO.
The Conscious Kitchen was launched by Sausalito-based non-profit Turning Green to work with schools to help them implement meal programs based on five foundations: fresh, local, organic, seasonal, and non-GMO (FLOSN).
The program was launched in 2013 after Judi Shils, Turning Green executive director, made an offer to schools in Marin County to change their meal programs from unhealthy, overly processed, heat-and-serve school food to ones based on FLOSN principles. One school, Bayside Martin Luther King, Jr. Academy, responded.
The K-8 school of 160 students is located in Marin City, a low-income area that is a “food desert,” where families lack access to healthy food and face high food costs.
“This was the most underserved school,” Shils says. “They were serving ‘airplane food’ meals.”
From “airplane food” to healthy, organic and non-GMO meals
Following a successful pilot project serving FLOSN foods in the school, Turning Green received the go-ahead from the school district to launch the Conscious Kitchen at Bayside MLK Academy for the 2013-2014 school year.
Shils faced a daunting task to change the school’s meals from pre-packaged, overly processed “airplane food” to healthy, organic, and non-GMO meals. She had help on the project from executive chef Justin Everett of Cavallo Point Lodge, who served as the consulting chef for the project. Good Earth Natural Foods and Whole Foods Market also supported the project.
Turning Green raised funds to upgrade the school’s kitchen to a culinary operation that could produce more than 300 made-from-scratch breakfasts and lunches per day.
We sourced local food and found farmers and purveyors,” Shils said. “We shifted everything about the school’s meals.”
Fortunately, Bayside MLK Academy is located in Marin County, which contains an abundance of organic farms. Local, organic foods purchased included a wide variety of fruits and vegetables as well as meat and poultry. Straus Family Creamery supplied milk.
“We live in a place where if we couldn’t do this program, it would be a problem,” Shils says.
“Healthy bodies and minds and happy kids”
The reaction from the students was overwhelmingly positive.
“The kids were blown away and loved it,” Shils says.
The students and school gained tangible benefits. Teachers reported increased student leadership, improved academic performance, a 67% decrease in disciplinary problems, and an increase in attendance. Teachers also observed students treating each other with more respect and open communication. The kitchen staff also reported a substantial decrease in food waste.
“The kids feel cared for, and they are satisfied,” Shils says. “With this program we see healthy bodies and minds and happy kids.”
Bayside MLK Academy also has a garden that helps children learn and appreciate how food is produced and about nutrition.
Based on the success at Bayside MLK Academy, the Conscious Kitchen expanded to another school in the district, Willow Creek Academy, for the 2015-2016 school year. The program will serve 500 students more than 70,000 healthy, sustainable meals.
With both schools, the Sausalito Marin City School District became the first 100% organic and non-GMO school district in the US.
The success gives Judi Shils confidence that the program can be replicated across the US.
“People told us we couldn’t do it, now we know otherwise,” Shils says. “We’re proving that we can do FLOSN food within budget. There’s not one school that couldn’t do this.”
The program’s success generated a lot of media coverage, which led to hundreds of inquiries from schools around the world, according to Shils.
Turning Green recently held a webinar to inspire other schools to adopt the Conscious Kitchen program. Six to eight more schools will likely adopt the program in the near future.
Those are a few more steps in the journey, but Shils has a bigger dream.
“Every school should be able to nourish their children with the best food they can,” she says. “Our little program could change the world.”