Whole Kids Foundation is built on a spirit of collaboration, and we act as a catalyst for change by investing in partnerships with respected experts in the fields of nutrition and education.

Together, we amplify each other’s efforts to improve children's nutrition and wellness.

Throughout 2023, we are spotlighting our current partners and how these organizations are growing the next generation of healthy eaters.

The Chef Ann Foundation (CAF) is dedicated to promoting whole-ingredient, scratch-cooking in schools by ensuring that school food professionals have the resources, funding and support they need to provide fresh, healthy, delicious, cook from scratch meals. This approach enables schools to serve the healthiest, tastiest meals so that kids are well-fed and ready to learn.

Since the inception of both foundations in 2011, Whole Kids Foundation and Chef Ann Foundation have partnered across several programs focused on improving school meals from generating access to healthier fruits and veggies in the Salad Bars to Schools grant, to supporting districts in moving to scratch cooking in the Get Schools Cooking program, to building a pipeline for future school food leaders in the Healthy School Food Pathway Fellowship, as well as collaborating as founding partners on ScratchWorks.

We reached out to Mara Fleishman, CEO at Chef Ann Foundation, to get the scoop on how they are helping kids learn to love fresh, nutritious, whole foods.

Whole Kids Foundation (WKF): What is Chef Ann Foundation's approach to advancing children’s nutrition and wellness?

Chef Ann Foundation: At the Chef Ann Foundation (CAF), we understand the need for a “whole child” approach to health and wellness. Support for nutrition education, physical activity and mental health are needed to ensure kids have the springboard they need to thrive and meet their true potential. We also know that the food they eat will help to develop long-term habits that could either support their ability to thrive or not. At CAF we choose to focus on one specific part of the puzzle, the food they eat at schools. We know this is only one piece of a 360 approach, but we feel this is the piece we are most equipped to help support change. These challenges in our system are big and we feel that it is imperative to tackle change from a systems approach and to stay focused on our piece of the puzzle while relying on amazing partners to focus on the rest.

How does CAF support school districts and how does that work impact the larger school nutrition movement?

The Chef Ann Foundation (CAF) supports school food programs by helping them move from a processed heat-and-serve to a cook from scratch model. While seemingly simple, this change is very challenging but can affect positive change in many areas like increased nutrition, increased environmental health, increased career value for school food employees and to a greater extent increased overall value for food and mealtime amongst children. CAF tries to tackle change through a system approach. We understand the simplicity of going from just heating things up to purchasing the ingredients and cooking them, however this change requires adjustments to many components in a school food program, food, finance, facilities, human resources and marketing. For instance, you can teach a school food operations team how to make their own cheese sauce and prepare elbow macaroni to make their own macaroni and cheese but if you don’t first work with them to help them understand changes to the system then the culinary knowledge will not lead to change. When working with districts to move from processed mac and cheese to scratch we need to help them look at; the best pathways to procure those fresh ingredients, the effect it will have on their budget, how to receive and store fresh components, how to ensure consistency in production at multiple sites, how to incorporate the item into a multi-week menu and create compliance based on the USDA regulations. Most importantly is WHY it’s worth the added effort to make this product from scratch as opposed to more easily reheating a frozen, already prepared, packaged item. This last part is oftentimes forgotten however it is crucial to the system. If a team member does not understand the impact of making your own mac and cheese vs the much easier alternative of just opening up a package and heating it up, then it will continue to be an uphill battle to create change.

Why are CAF’s efforts to support scratch cooking in districts so important to children?

“Overall, the proportion of calories in youths’ diets that came from ultra-processed foods rose between 1999 to 2018, from about 61% to 67%. The proportion from whole, unprocessed foods dropped from almost 29% to 23.5% during the same time.” (LINK to article) In addition, “ultra-processed foods accounted for greater increases in calories for non-Hispanic Black and Mexican American youths compared with non-Hispanic White youths.”

So, what is so bad about ultra-processed foods? “Longitudinal studies in the Americas and Europe have linked eating more ultra-processed food to a number of health risks, including increases in obesity, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, and even dementia.” (LINK to article)

As children move through their K-12 experience they develop knowledge and skills that are intended to help them succeed in life. However, unlike education around math, social studies, and language arts they are taught very little about food. Every child will likely eat three meals a day for the rest of their lives and the food they eat will determine a crucial piece of their health and wellness. Even though eating is something all children will do for the rest of their lives the US education system does not place value on food and mealtime. You can see this in the kind of food that is served in schools, the short amount of time dedicated to mealtime, the fact that they make kids coming from families of certain incomes pay for meals, the lack of education around food and the low pay and value of school food workers in districts.

We believe at CAF that helping districts change to scratch cooking will help kids develop habits that reduce eating ultra-processed food and that help kids understand what fresh food tastes like and how it feels in their bodies. Additionally with nearly 14 billion dollars spent on school food each year, moving to scratch in our school food program will allow us to procure higher quality food items and ultimately contribute to a better food system that reduces impact on the environment.

What has been the impact of the partnership between Whole Kids Foundation and Chef Ann Foundation over the years?

Whole Kids Foundation has been CAF’s longest supporting partner. Having the opportunity to affect change in over 13,000 schools and with nearly 4 million children simply would not have happened without Whole Kids Foundation. This is not an exaggeration or platitude. Changing a system like school food is momentous and it requires not only commitment and dedication, but it requires innovative thinking, risk taking and long term dedication. CAF has turned to WKF to think outside the box and build programming that is unique, cutting edge and visionary. Without these types of partners non-profits would not have the opportunity to go after moonshots, therefore not creating pathways to great change. From the Lunch Box to Salad Bars to Schools, to Get Schools Cooking, to Healthy School Food Pathways - Whole Kids Foundation has been the first to step up and provide support and thought partnership. These programs are now supporting over 13,000 schools across the country and driving deep change in school food. Without the initial support provided by Whole Kids Foundation we would not have been able to create these critical infrastructure support programs that now have national philanthropic and government support. In short, the Whole Kids Foundation is a catalyst for change.

What current or upcoming project or program is your team excited about right now?

One of the most exciting programs that launched in California nearly 2 years ago is Healthy School Food Pathways - it is a workforce development initiative for school food professionals. Labor is a critical component to the overall success of a school food program. We need more people to consider school food jobs and we need those people to be skilled in understanding how to run a scratch cook school food program. This initiative is exciting because we have created a state and federally registered apprenticeship program that has potential school food employees learning from districts CAF has worked with to create a scratch cook program. These potential apprentices will work onsite in these programs along with engaging in critical education to help them understand the impact and operations of school food. There is also a Fellowship component that supports mid-level school food operators across the country, taking them through a 12 month program to prepare them to lead a scratch cook program. This is a perfect example of a systems change program. By focusing on building the workforce of the future we can ensure that school food labor has the education and capacity to create the change that we all envision, fresh healthy food on children's plates!