Feeding Minds, Nourishing Futures


When we talk about education, we usually think of classrooms and teachers. But something else plays a key role in shaping young minds—school lunch! Those cafeteria trays hold more than just food; they reflect a school’s commitment to health and sustainability. With many schools cutting back on highly processed items, making more scratch-made meals, and locally sourcing anything from produce to bread to meat, it’s evident that the lunchroom is not just about filling bellies. It’s also about nourishing minds and fostering a healthier planet for future generations.

The Academy of Global Citizenship (AGC) in Chicago, part of the Chicago Public School System, is an example of a school redefining the role of school food services by prioritizing health and wellness, global awareness, and community engagement. It starts with what they eat. As a public charter school, AGC serves a socioeconomically diverse student population from kindergarten through eighth grade. AGC is serving more than just meals—it’s also serving up a side of environmental consciousness.

The day I visited the school, I found AGC’s nutrition program to be a unique and transformative experience. Here, it’s not just about cranking out the meals. It stands out for its focus on locally sourced and sustainably grown food. AGC’s partnership with local farmers and vendors ensures that school meals are made from fresh, seasonal, and sustainably grown ingredients.

Stacey Whitney serves as the Culinary Director, Angel Chaidez as the Head Chef, Sadeek Colquitt as the Plant-Based Program Coordinator, and Kris De La Torre as the Director of Sustainability and School Food. Together, they work in partnership to ensure that the meals they serve are made of fresh, seasonal, minimally processed foods that are culturally connected and eco-friendly.

Students use plates and real silverware to make it feel like an at-home dining experience and pour their dairy or plant-based milk into break-proof glasses. Servers Maria, Carelys, and Chaffiaa serve the students complete reimbursable hot meals with a smile and a sense of pride, allowing students to take as many extra fruits and vegetables as they want.

Look at the lunch menu, and you’ll find various options created by the chef that will excite your taste buds and embody the values of AGC. You have some incredible options to choose from. First, there’s a Three Sisters Stew, a hearty dish made with butternut squash, beans, corn, and assorted vegetables—perfect for when students want something filling and comforting. Next, you have a Mediterranean Wrap stuffed with eggplant, garlic, chickpeas, and cilantro; it’s jam-packed with flavor. Or, how about trying the Veggie Chorizo Burrito made with tofu, spices, raisins, and fresh pico de gallo—an impeccable combination of sweet and mildly spicy flavors. There’s something to satisfy every palate. What’s more, they offer a vibrant salad bar where students can pile their plates with fresh fruits and vegetables to ensure they are fueled with nutritious goodness for the rest of the day.

Beyond dishing out unique culinary experiences in the lunchroom, AGC places a strong emphasis on food education to involve its students in every step of the food journey. This includes planning, planting, and harvesting fruits and vegetables in the three-acre school garden and preparing meals in classroom kitchens, which are cleverly named “villages.” Through this hands-on approach, students acquire pragmatic cooking skills and develop a deeper appreciation for the origin of their food and the importance of making healthy choices.

But AGC’s commitment to nutrition doesn’t stop there. To extend nutrition education beyond its walls, the school actively promotes healthy eating habits in programs involving parents, caregivers, families, and the wider community. AGC hosts community nights, wellness fairs, and outreach events and shares its knowledge and resources with the surrounding neighborhood.

As part of a plant-based pilot school grant supplied by The Plant-Based School Lunch Collaborative, AGC is planning an event called “The Taste of AGC” for June 2024. The goal is to encourage community partnerships and engagement. All parents, caregivers, families, and community members are invited to attend and experience the mouthwatering meals provided to their students during the school year. In my professional experience, when schools and communities work together, they can address local challenges, celebrate achievements, and create a more inclusive environment for everyone involved.

The few hours I spent with the AGC team have left me hopeful for the future of school food and nutrition education. Their program’s success is a testament to the power of nutrition in nurturing healthy minds and bodies and molding future leaders who possess compassion, consciousness, and a sense of empowerment. AGC’s approach serves as a beacon of hope and optimism, inspiring us to strive toward a healthier and more sustainable future for the benefit of all.

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