Judi Shils, executive director of Teens Turning Green, remembers a time when school lunches were barely a blip on her radar. Her own daughters were lucky enough to attend schools with excellent lunch programs, and Shils knows that Marin County, California—where she lives—is a haven for local and organic eating.
But when a student attending a Teens Turning Green summit brought the issue of nutritionally-lacking school lunches to her attention, Shills found out just how fortunate her daughters were. Many other students in the city were not eating well, she found; some schools didn’t even have kitchens.
Shils saw the student's interest in improving school lunches was spot-on: something needed to be done.
To broaden her knowledge base and prepare to take on the task, Shils brought together all the stakeholders she could think of. At the first meeting, held in June, 75 constituents showed up.
“It was definitely an issue folks wanted to collaborate on,” she tells TakePart. “If there was any place we could really reach for the platinum bar, it was here.”
The initiative was dubbed Project Lunch.
As Teens Turning Green spoke to key stakeholders, they found that school lunch programs were much more complicated than they appeared. Some schools were equipped to make leaps and bounds. Others would require baby steps.
Schools “have such strict federal regulations that they have to abide by—you know, the commodities that they’re told to buy like Tyson’s chicken and Foster Farms, and the Dole fruit cocktail which has God knows how much sugar and high fructose corn syrup in it” that implementing changes requires some bureaucratic jostling.
Every school has a different scenario—where it is, where it wants to get to, how motivated its food service team and PTA parents are.
“The only way to work through it is school by school,” Shils says.
Beneath a great deal of red tape, Teens Turning Green also discovered a wealth of community interest in improving school lunches.
“Many individuals and schools have been singing this song for a long time,” Shills explains. “Suddenly there are all these people to help them and to support them, and that’s allowing very big strides to be made in a very short amount of time. We probably have interest in every school district in Marin County."
This Monday, Project Lunch kicked off a week of food awareness. Monday was gleaning day; students trekked out to local farm fields to pick fruits and vegetables for their cafeterias. Tuesday, food clubs were formed, building student and service staff teams to make healthy, sustainable food choices. On Wednesday, students will meet with farmers and learn firsthand about local agriculture for Project Lunch Prep Day. Thursday is Farmers Market Day, devoted to visiting farmers markets and selecting ingredients for Friday’s lunch. And Friday, of course, caps off the week with a school lunch celebration. Each club will be tasked with cooking a local, organic, nutritious meal, made with ingredients from local farms and farmers markets.
One key catalyst in the community was offering kids a chance to try what they were missing out on.
Two weeks ago, for example, one of the school districts working with Teens Turning Green took kids out to a farm to glean the fields. When they returned with heaps of green beans, the school cafeteria staff prepared the freshly picked vegetables with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and served them in lieu of the usual canned green beans.
“The kids went nuts," says Shils. "They loved the fresh stuff. So it’s all this education around really changing the mindset, and understanding what fresh and healthy looks like.”
In the meantime, Shills has found her own interest in food growing. The more she explores facets of fixing school food, the more she sees fresh, real food as a “centerpiece” to life in general.
“It’s what brings people together around communities; it's what shares culture,” she says. “There’s a lot of different cultures in the community in Marin. You look at the school menus, and there’s nothing that honors that culture. They’re not given any ethnicity.” Teens Turning Green wants to close that gap, and let kids be part of the process in determining menus.
Shils has faith in the teens at her nonprofit, and all over the country. “The reason I love working with kids….is when you inspire kids….and work with them on the realities of the impact that things in their lives are having on their health and well-being—whether it’s personal care and body products, food, stuff that’s sprayed on their crops—they suddenly become amazing activists.”
Laughing, Shills says she means activists in the best sense of the word. “They mobilize around the issue when they are given the information to know to care. If you inspire kids, they change communities.”
All they need, she says, is the information and tools to get started. “If we can get Food, Inc. or Project Lunch clubs, or whatever tools there are into the hands of kids around the country, then the change will happen. It doesn’t matter whether they’re red states or blue states; it doesn’t matter who they are. These are all issues that are so pivotal to the rest of their lives.”
For now, Shils and Teens Turning Green are chipping away, taking baby steps as they come, meeting schools where they’re at.
It’ll be a long time before they see the complete transformation they envision, but Shils says the outlook is good: “This initiative is igniting more passion than anything I’ve ever done in my life.”