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Sam Kass: Want kids to learn well? Feed them well

November 2, 2015

What can we expect our kids to learn if they're hungry or eating diets full of sugar and empty of nutrients? Former White House Chef and food policymaker Sam Kass discusses the role schools can play in nourishing students' bodies in addition to their minds.

Sam Kass - Food entrepreneur
Sam Kass's work connects nutrition and education in an effort to make sure future generations thrive. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I am a chef
00:12
and a food policy guy,
00:14
but I come from a whole
family of teachers.
00:16
My sister is a special ed
teacher in Chicago.
00:20
My father just retired
after 25 years teaching fifth grade.
00:23
My aunt and uncle were professors.
00:28
My cousins all teach.
00:30
Everybody in my family, basically,
teaches except for me.
00:32
They taught me that the only way
to get the right answers
00:36
is to ask the right questions.
00:41
So what are the right questions
00:45
when it comes to improving
the educational outcomes for our children?
00:46
There's obviously
many important questions,
00:52
but I think the following
is a good place to start:
00:54
What do we think the connection is
00:58
between a child's growing mind
01:00
and their growing body?
01:03
What can we expect our kids to learn
01:05
if their diets are full of sugar
and empty of nutrients?
01:08
What can they possibly learn
01:13
if their bodies
are literally going hungry?
01:15
And with all the resources
that we are pouring into schools,
01:20
we should stop and ask ourselves:
01:24
Are we really setting our kids
up for success?
01:26
Now, a few years ago,
01:30
I was a judge on a cooking
competition called "Chopped."
01:32
Its four chefs compete
with mystery ingredients
01:35
to see who can cook the best dishes.
01:39
Except for this episode --
it was a very special one.
01:42
Instead of four overzealous chefs
trying to break into the limelight --
01:47
something that I would know
nothing about --
01:50
(Laughter)
01:52
These chefs were school chefs --
01:53
you know, the women that you used
to call "lunch ladies,"
01:56
but the ones I insist
we call "school chefs."
01:59
Now, these women -- God bless
these women --
02:02
spend their day cooking
for thousands of kids,
02:05
breakfast and lunch,
with only $2.68 per lunch,
02:09
with only about a dollar of that
actually going to the food.
02:13
Now, in this episode,
02:17
the main course mystery
ingredient was quinoa.
02:19
Now, I know it's been a long time
02:22
since most of you have had a school lunch,
02:24
and we've made a lot
of progress on nutrition,
02:26
but quinoa still is not a staple
in most school cafeterias.
02:28
(Laughter)
02:32
So this was a challenge.
02:34
But the dish that I will never forget
was cooked by a woman
02:36
named Cheryl Barbara.
02:39
Cheryl was the nutrition director
02:41
at High School in the Community
in Connecticut.
02:43
She cooked this delicious pasta.
02:45
It was amazing.
02:48
It was a pappardelle with Italian sausage,
02:49
kale, Parmesan cheese.
02:52
It was delicious, like,
restaurant-quality good, except --
02:54
she basically just threw the quinoa,
pretty much uncooked,
02:57
into the dish.
03:01
It was a strange choice,
03:02
and it was super crunchy.
03:04
(Laughter)
03:07
So I took on the TV accusatory judge thing
that you're supposed to do,
03:09
and I asked her why she did that.
03:14
Cheryl responded, "Well, first,
I don't know what quinoa is."
03:17
(Laughter)
03:20
"But I do know that it's a Monday,
03:21
and that in my school,
at High School in the Community,
03:25
I always cook pasta."
03:28
See, Cheryl explained
that for many of her kids,
03:31
there were no meals on the weekends.
03:34
No meals on Saturday.
03:39
No meals on Sunday, either.
03:42
So she cooked pasta
because she wanted to make sure
03:45
she cooked something she knew
her children would eat.
03:48
Something that would
stick to their ribs, she said.
03:53
Something that would fill them up.
03:57
By the time Monday came,
04:01
her kids' hunger pangs were so intense
04:04
that they couldn't even begin
to think about learning.
04:06
Food was the only thing on their mind.
04:10
The only thing.
04:16
And unfortunately, the stats --
they tell the same story.
04:18
So, let's put this
into the context of a child.
04:22
And we're going to focus on
04:26
the most important meal
of the day, breakfast.
04:28
Meet Allison.
04:30
She's 12 years old,
04:31
she's smart as a whip
04:33
and she wants to be a physicist
when she grows up.
04:34
If Allison goes to a school
that serves a nutritious breakfast
04:37
to all of their kids,
04:41
here's what's going to follow.
04:42
Her chances of getting a nutritious meal,
04:45
one with fruit and milk,
one lower in sugar and salt,
04:48
dramatically increase.
04:51
Allison will have a lower rate
of obesity than the average kid.
04:54
She'll have to visit the nurse less.
04:58
She'll have lower levels
of anxiety and depression.
05:00
She'll have better behavior.
05:03
She'll have better attendance,
and she'll show up on time more often.
05:05
Why?
05:08
Well, because there's a good meal
waiting for her at school.
05:10
Overall, Allison is in much better health
05:13
than the average school kid.
05:17
So what about that kid
05:19
who doesn't have a nutritious
breakfast waiting for him?
05:21
Well, meet Tommy.
05:24
He's also 12. He's a wonderful kid.
05:26
He wants to be a doctor.
05:28
By the time Tommy is in kindergarten,
05:31
he's already underperforming in math.
05:32
By the time he's in third grade,
05:36
he's got lower math and reading scores.
05:38
By the time he's 11,
05:42
it's more likely that Tommy will have
to have repeated a grade.
05:44
Research shows that kids
who do not have consistent nourishment,
05:49
particularly at breakfast,
05:52
have poor cognitive function overall.
05:53
So how widespread is this problem?
05:59
Well, unfortunately, it's pervasive.
06:01
Let me give you two stats
06:05
that seem like they're on opposite
ends of the issue,
06:06
but are actually two sides
of the same coin.
06:09
On the one hand,
06:12
one in six Americans are food insecure,
06:14
including 16 million children --
almost 20 percent --
06:17
are food insecure.
06:21
In this city alone, in New York City,
06:23
474,000 kids under the age of 18
face hunger every year.
06:26
It's crazy.
06:33
On the other hand,
06:34
diet and nutrition is the number one cause
of preventable death and disease
06:36
in this country, by far.
06:40
And fully a third of the kids
that we've been talking about tonight
06:43
are on track to have diabetes
in their lifetime.
06:46
Now, what's hard
to put together but is true
06:51
is that, many times,
these are the same children.
06:53
So they fill up on the unhealthy
and cheap calories
06:57
that surround them in their communities
and that their families can afford.
07:00
But then by the end of the month,
07:04
food stamps run out
or hours get cut at work,
07:07
and they don't have the money
to cover the basic cost of food.
07:11
But we should be able
to solve this problem, right?
07:16
We know what the answers are.
07:19
As part of my work at the White House,
we instituted a program
07:22
that for all schools that had
40 percent more low-income kids,
07:25
we could serve breakfast and lunch
to every kid in that school
07:29
for free.
07:34
This program has been
incredibly successful,
07:35
because it helped us overcome
a very difficult barrier
07:37
when it came to getting kids
a nutritious breakfast.
07:41
And that was the barrier of stigma.
07:44
See, schools serve
breakfast before school,
07:48
and it was only available
for the poor kids.
07:53
So everybody knew who was poor
and who needed government help.
07:58
Now, all kids, no matter how much
or how little their parents make,
08:03
have a lot of pride.
08:07
So what happened?
08:10
Well, the schools that have
implemented this program
08:12
saw an increase in math and reading
scores by 17.5 percent.
08:14
17.5 percent.
08:20
And research shows that when kids
have a consistent, nutritious breakfast,
08:23
their chances of graduating
increase by 20 percent.
08:29
20 percent.
08:33
When we give our kids
the nourishment they need,
08:36
we give them the chance to thrive,
08:40
both in the classroom and beyond.
08:43
Now, you don't have to trust me on this,
08:46
but you should talk to Donna Martin.
08:49
I love Donna Martin.
08:52
Donna Martin is the school nutrition
director at Burke County
08:54
in Waynesboro, Georgia.
08:57
Now, Burke County
is one of the poorest districts
09:01
in the fifth-poorest state in the country,
09:03
and about 100 percent of Donna's students
live at or below the poverty line.
09:07
A few years ago,
09:13
Donna decided to get out ahead
of the new standards that were coming,
09:15
and overhaul her nutrition standards.
09:19
She improved and added
fruit and vegetables and whole grains.
09:22
She served breakfast in the classroom
to all of her kids.
09:27
And she implemented a dinner program.
09:30
Why?
09:32
Well, many of her kids didn't have
dinner when they went home.
09:34
So how did they respond?
09:38
Well, the kids loved the food.
09:40
They loved the better nutrition,
09:43
and they loved not being hungry.
09:45
But Donna's biggest supporter came
from an unexpected place.
09:49
His name from Eric Parker,
09:53
and he was the head football coach
for the Burke County Bears.
09:55
Now, Coach Parker had coached
mediocre teams for years.
09:59
The Bears often ended
in the middle of the pack --
10:03
a big disappointment in one
of the most passionate football states
10:05
in the union.
10:09
But the year Donna changed the menus,
10:10
the Bears not only won their division,
10:15
they went on to win
the state championship,
10:18
beating the Peach County Trojans
10:21
28-14.
10:23
(Laughter)
10:25
And Coach Parker,
10:27
he credited that championship
to Donna Martin.
10:30
When we give our kids
the basic nourishment,
10:35
they're gonna thrive.
10:38
And it's not just up
to the Cheryl Barbaras
10:40
and the Donna Martins of the world.
10:43
It's on all of us.
10:46
And feeding our kids the basic nutrition
is just the starting point.
10:48
What I've laid out is really a model
10:54
for so many of the most pressing
issues that we face.
10:56
If we focus on the simple goal
of properly nourishing ourselves,
11:00
we could see a world
that is more stable and secure;
11:07
we could dramatically improve
our economic productivity;
11:11
we could transform our health care
11:15
and we could go a long way
11:19
in ensuring that the Earth can provide
for generations to come.
11:20
Food is that place
where our collective efforts
11:24
can have the greatest impact.
11:28
So we have to ask ourselves:
What is the right question?
11:32
What would happen
11:35
if we fed ourselves more nutritious,
more sustainably grown food?
11:37
What would be the impact?
11:43
Cheryl Barbara,
11:45
Donna Martin,
11:48
Coach Parker and the Burke County Bears --
11:50
I think they know the answer.
11:53
Thank you guys so very much.
11:54
(Applause)
11:56

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Sam Kass - Food entrepreneur
Sam Kass's work connects nutrition and education in an effort to make sure future generations thrive.

Why you should listen

Food entrepreneur Sam Kass is a former White House Chef and Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition. He is the founder of TROVE and a partner in Acre Venture Partners.

Kass joined the White House kitchen staff in 2009 as Assistant Chef and, in 2010, became Food Initiative Coordinator. During his White House tenure, he took on several additional roles including Executive Director of First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let’s Move!" campaign and senior White House Policy Advisor for Nutrition. Kass is the first person in the history of the White House to have a position in the Executive Office of the President and the Residence. As one of the First Lady’s longest-serving advisors, he served as Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives and he helped the First Lady create the first major vegetable garden at the White House since Eleanor Roosevelt’s victory garden.

In 2011, Fast Company included Sam in their list of "100 Most Creative People," and in 2012, he helped create the American Chef Corps, which is dedicated to promoting diplomacy through culinary initiatives. He is also an MIT Media lab fellow, entrepreneur and advisor.

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