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Students make a fresh fruit rainbow during a Future Foodies classroom lesson.

Best Concepts: Future Foodies helps elementary schoolers connect with what's on their plate.

Southwest Foodservice Excellence nutrition education program has been named winner of the 2023 FM Best Concepts Award in the Best Wellness Concept category.

Southwest Foodservice Excellence (SFE), the national foodservice management company specializing school nutrition, has long provided wholesome meals for K-12 students. Now, their Future Foodies program is helping elementary schoolers forge a deeper connection with their food—and make healthier choices.

For its innovative and comprehensive approach to promoting nutrition and culinary education, Future Foodies has been named the winner of the 2023 FM Best Concept Award in the Best Wellness Concept category.

“Our goal is to empower and excite students in making strong choices when it comes to their nutrition,” says Chef Monty Staggs, CEO of SFE. “We’re offering an immersive learning approach where students can learn about the nutritional benefits and develop a passion for incorporating healthy produce into their diet regularly.”

At the core of Future Foodies is Harvest of the Month, where a different seasonal fruit or vegetable is highlighted. Students get an opportunity to learn about the fruit or vegetable, including why it's good for them and how it grows, either in the classroom or in the cafeteria as they make their way through the serving line.

Tasting is, of course, a key educational component. During grape month, younger students were invited to try different grape varieties (like red, green, and cotton candy) and share how each one was different. Older students were invited to write a short advertisement story to "sell" grapes based on their nutritional components.

Recipes featuring the month's harvest are on tap in the cafeteria too. During cherry month, for instance, there were cherry parfaits and a cherry compote that could be served with pancakes or waffles. All Harvest of the Month menu offerings are designed to align with SFE's existing menu expectations. "We have these core menus for our districts, and we developed the Harvest of the Month selections based on that, so we could pull those items in when they're best served for freshness," says SFE Assistant Director of Compliance Alexa Ells, R.D., who helped develop Future Foodies. Whenever possible, SFE seeks to utilize produce from local vendors.

Hands-on experience is also key to the Future Foodies program. Pop-up cooking classes are designed to walk students through making an age-appropriate recipe like chicken stir-fry or pepperoni pizza. "Each student gets a chef's hat and work space, and everyone makes their own item. The kids get to take home the recipe and a certificate of completion. Everyone is always really excited about that," says Ells. Dubbed the Roving Chef, the classes take place with a mobile culinary cart. "It's a one-stop-shop on wheels that fits everything, including a camera and TV that scopes up, a heating surface, a sink for hand-washing, and other culinary equipment," Ells explains.

Other components of the program include pop-up farmer's markets held in the school cafeteria, as well as gardening education. "At the farmer's markets, we'll typically bring in our produce vendors and give kids an opportunity to try more exotic produce, like dragon fruit or watermelon radish. These items are less feasible to put on the service line, but this way we can still do exposure," Ells explains. 

Future Foodies was designed as a top-level nutrition education program that SFE schools could incorporate in the way that worked best for them. Harvest of the Month menu items and educational materials are provided to schools, who can choose how they want to implement learning experiences, culinary demonstrations, and farmer's markets based on their resources and staffing.

"Depending on the district size and SFE support staff, we have a schedule breakdown for how often we want programming to take place," says SFE Child Nutrition Manager Katie Krieg, M.S., R.D., who worked with Ells to develop Future Foodies. "If it's just the SFE general manager or dietitian, they'll put on a monthly classroom education session plus a farmer's market and Roving Chef program every couple of months. Larger schools have more expectations." The gardening education program is optional, based on a school's available space and resources. Regardless of the school or its size, implementation does not require additional staff or training. 

Ells and Krieg took a top-down approach to implementing the program, starting with communicating regional area directors and working down towards educating individual districts and general managers. Programming is designed to be easy to implement. "It's meant to be turnkey," Ells says. "We have toolkits and timelines, and the educational materials are easy to implement no matter what a general manager's nutrition background might be."

Future Foodies currently runs in all of the elementary schools within the 150+ districts that SFE serves. The goal is to expand that cycle to four years and develop additional curriculum for older students in SFE's secondary schools. But the ultimate goal will remain the same: "We want students to learn about where food comes from and how it's part of the food system," Ells says.

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