Beecher's Cheese Aims to Teach Washington Students How to Eat Healthier

One pot of chili at a time.

A cluster of animated students sit around a table discussing what marketing strategies were used on a Pop-Tarts box. Nora Dummer calls on one of the raised hands to answer. “I don’t think it’s baked with real fruit like the box says,” the student says. “They could lie.”

“Lying is illegal!” another student yells across the room.

In a 4th-grade classroom at West Seattle’s Lafayette Elementary School, Dummer, with the Pure Food Kids program, tells the students they will be food detectives during the workshop. “You will find the criminals in our foods and investigate food packaging,” she said. “Then you can make your own decisions about what to put in your bodies.”

The Pure Food Kids Foundation is part of Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, known for their impossibly rich mac and cheese. One of several food entities headed by Sugar Mountain CEO Kurt Dammeier, Beecher’s founded Pure Food Kids in 2006 to work toward reversing the influx of diet-related diseases. Its mission is to educate and inspire 4th- and 5th-grade students to make better choices about what they buy and eat. Executive director Kristin Hyde compares the program to the ones from the 1970s, when kids took home what they learned in school to encourage their parents to quit smoking or start recycling. “Our theory of change here at Beecher’s Pure Food Kids Foundation is that kids are powerful change agents, and can be the catalyst for family-wide healthier food choices,” Hyde said.

According to a 2014 survey by the Foundation, 94 percent of kids who participated in the Pure Food Kids workshop were more likely to choose a less-processed snack with a shorter ingredient list, and 97 percent became more skeptical of industrial food companies’ marketing tactics. These results drive additional funding and participation.

Motivated by education and activism, Dummer became involved with the organization while earning a degree in nutrition and culinary arts from Bastyr University. She leads the class in a quick test of their knowledge of food and health: “What is marketing?” “What is a calorie?” Using visuals like laminated cereal boxes, she asks the students to make observations about their ingredient lists.

Though Kellogg’s may not be lying about using real fruit, the dried fruits are listed beneath ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup, sugar, and soybean oil. Dummer explains that ingredients are listed from greatest weight to least, showing the students that Pop-Tarts contain more processed sugar than actual fruit. The sweet breakfast pastry is also used to demonstrate unrealistic serving sizes. After revealing that the nutrition information on the back of the box accounts for only one Pop-Tart, Dummer holds up a foil pouch containing two—the standard packaging—and asks the kids if they would have eaten both of them. The majority raise their hands, understanding now how nutrition-information labels can mislead.

As the conversation segues to food additives, Dummer gives examples of common ingredients in processed foods with unexpected origins. She explains the history of Splenda, including that it was originally designed in a lab as an insecticide. According to a New Yorker article, the scientists, after noticing the flavor was sweet, repurposed it as an artificial sweetener. Similarly, Dummer says, “All artificial colors are chemicals found in petroleum or coal tar.” Since the 20th century, scientists have extracted chemicals from coal tar to make synthetic colors. Many students make uncomfortable noises; one boy says, “They’re trying to kill us!”

“Any time foods are made in a science lab, your bodies don’t know what to do with them,” Dummer adds.

She places the ingredient list of a generic canned chili on a projector. The students read silently, taking in the suspect elements in the long list. She points out the caramel color, oatmeal, and corn flour at the top. She then projects the ingredient list of the chili the students will learn to make in class, indicating the beans, vegetables, and spices.

Soon the smell of chopped raw onion permeates the classroom. Other students measure corn, spices, and canned tomatoes into Dummer’s sizzling pot. Every two-hour workshop since the program’s launch in 2006 ends with students making this vegetarian chili, its longevity due to its absence of allergens like gluten, dairy, and soy. The tomatoes and beans are donated, as are the compostable cups and spoons used to serve it. Beecher’s Handmade Cheese and other Sugar Mountain companies annually donate one percent of sales to the Pure Food Kids Foundation, making the workshops free to schools.

Hyde joined the Foundation in 2012. After working in different areas of the food industry, she found a way to continue her work to improve the food system, making it healthier for people and the planet. “After many years of frustrating work to reform policies like the farm bill and school lunch,” she says, “it was refreshing to be introduced to an initiative that was working so directly with youth to shift culture and consumer behavior around food choices—which I believe is a quicker way to change the marketplace and policy in the long run.”

Though a large part of Hyde’s job is to grow the Foundation by applying for philanthropic grants and appealing to corporate giving programs, her favorite part is being able to occasionally teach the classes herself. “I have been thrilled to see kids inspired to take action as citizens, not just consumers, who are passionate about creating positive change in the way government and food companies do business when it comes to food.”

The program has grown to reach 274 schools in the country. Hyde says the goal is to make the workshop part of every 4th- and 5th-grade class in the region in order to further assess its long-term effects on kids, teachers, and families.

“Our hope is to attract additional support to be able to scale this program to every school in the country someday,” Hyde says. “But we certainly can’t do it alone.”

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