07/20/2010 10:55 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Empowering the Next Generation Through Food

By guest blogger Julie Frans, Owner of Dining Details and Chickpeas.

It is shocking how many educated people have no education or true understanding when it comes to healthy eating. In my line of work, I come across so many parents who claim that they feed their families healthy food, but am shocked at their notions of heath! Their pantries are filled with processed foods, in boxes and bags with ingredient lists too long to read in one sitting, plastered front and back with nutritional claims. Where did we go wrong? How has America gotten so confused about what "food" is!?

I had a baby in December of 2008, and made a promise to myself to feed him only wholesome, organic foods during his formative years and beyond, making all of his baby food from scratch, and including him in our kitchen activities. Now at a year and a half, he is most entertained while sitting on the kitchen counter watching us prepare meals, grabbing a spatula or whisk most of the time to "help." When we first started feeding him organic farm produce, incorporating flavors like fresh mint, black pepper, and basil, I started wondering... who would he eat with when he grows up? Who would appreciate food with him, or the quality of fresh farm goodness? Would he be alone in a world of fast food, processed junk addicts? And so... we created "Chickpeas... Quality Food for Growing Bodies."

Chickpeas started as a school lunch program. We wanted to devise a menu that not only provided solid nutrition for kids, made with ingredients that truly fueled their growing minds and bodies, but also expanded their world of taste and flavor, and helped them develop a positive feeling about healthy food. We figured that if we could sneak better nutrition into the lunches, by adding veggie purees and shredded produce into the food, use a variety of grains like quinoa pasta and brown rice, and rotate our ingredients according to seasonality so that we could make use of local, organic foods, the students would be gaining a wealth of nutrient diversity and fresh flavor.

We found a pilot school that would allow us to launch our project, and we were quickly off and running! We put the wheels in motion to develop the company as a separate, but related, company to our primary business, Dining Details. Whereas Dining Details was focused on organic gourmet in a sophisticated, high end way, we wanted to draw kids to this healthy food company through bright, cartoon-y, farm inspired illustrations, showing that good food is fun, it's recognizable, and it makes you feel good. We developed our mission and vision, hired the appropriate staff to help us carry out the first year, and moved into a large commercial kitchen of our own. We added services as we found more needs to fill, including adding family dinners as an option to our school program, developing a baby-food line to help get kids started even earlier on fresh- picked and fresh-made food, and lots of education. Our reputation for solid nutrition, ingredient integrity, and service standards grew quickly.

The company has grown leaps and bounds in only the first year of operation. With very little funding, and a very lean staff to run it, we have watched everything closely to make sure we can sustain this company without growing too fast or losing the vision and integrity we started with. We never intend to grow so big that we don't know our students or our faculty or where our food is coming or going. We may find ways in years to come to expand, but for now, our goal is to provide food where we can, education to as many schools and people as we can reach, and make an impact on the larger picture of progress toward healthier school lunches.

We have focused on private schools, where there is a bit more flex in the cost of a school lunch, and parents are more able to pay for quality nutrition. We have had had many inquiries from parents and teachers in public schools, but with the prices and structure of commodities, public schools are still so limited in what they can offer in the way of healthy, let alone, organic lunches. The public school system has a long road ahead to be able to afford whole fresh foods. For now, we can offer school districts consultation on prioritizing their steps toward a healthier program, and guiding them on the road toward more nutritious lunch programs, but even with our help, the budgetary limitations restrict them so much. We will be working with our first small school district over the summer to help them revamp their program through the next several years. We can also influence public schools through education and discussions, empowering students to make healthier decisions and know the difference between food and chemicals. Once students are given the information, and learn what those unrecognizable words and processed sugars are doing to their minds and bodies, they are able to approach their meals in a different way. They can take the information home to help mom and dad understand what the packaging labels are REALLY saying.

Chickpeas has at least six private schools lined up for the coming school year, and the summer consulting project with a district. We are providing everything from baby food making classes and hands-on toddler nutrition to kids cooking and parents cooking classes. Our family dinner program gets healthy, wholesome dinners home to parents who want to feed their families well, but don't have the time or knowledge on how to do so. When it comes down to it, Chickpeas is willing and ready to help however we can to get kids eating healthier! We are committed to do everything we can to save this generation from their forbidding projected health statistics. There is still time to turn the tables, and we hope to be a strong local impetus in redefining the health of the next generation.

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