The Beecher’s Foundation tackles change, one serving at a time
STORY BY CORINNE WHITING
PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE BEECHER’S FOUNDATION
In a light-filled space off Westlake Avenue, a brand-new test kitchen brings together chefs — from novice home cooks to Julia Child wannabes — to learn about, work with, and taste delicious, healthful food. A bounty of colorful produce lines the counter where two friendly facilitators greet the group. Guests sling on aprons before choosing a seat and settling in. To break the ice, workshop-goers share food memories with one another.
During one recent session, recollections ranged from collecting mud crabs in Australia to learning to cook with grandma via a treasure trove of stained, scribbled-on recipes (still used today). The common thread? The realization that food — which inevitably connects us to history, culture, and identity — is always something to be celebrated.
Through casual yet informative talks and interactive activities (like “Two Truths and a Lie” and “The Price is Right” type of quizzes), participants learn how processed, heavily sugared, additive-laden food is killing us slowly, and what we can all do to help change that. Though the message may sound bleak, the delivery proves lighthearted and the outlook hopeful.
These workshops are part of Sound Food Uprising, one of the newer ventures of the Beecher’s Foundation, which also launched the Pure Food Kids Workshop, in 2006. Both programs can be attributed to Kurt Beecher Dammeier, who joined the food community in 1999 by forming Sugar Mountain, a family of businesses that includes Beecher’s Handmade Cheese (a favorite stop on most shoppers’ Pike Place Market circuit).
After launching Sugar Mountain, Dammeier knew he wanted to become more community-minded, but couldn’t find a nonprofit that he wanted to donate a percentage of the company’s earnings to. So he decided to do the next best thing, and he started his own.
On their website, the Beecher’s Foundation folks call themselves a team of “change-makers, stubborn optimists and unapologetic eaters.” Their overarching goal aspires to build a better food future for all. The enthusiastic staff staunchly believes in the power of individuals — of all ages — to make everyday choices that ultimately transform our food system.
In these educational yet approachable workshops, the team discusses how food has evolved over time, as well as the sneaky marketing tactics that influence what we consume. The way Americans eat today, says Beecher’s president Sara Morris, has dramatically veered from how humans ate for centuries, taking us far away from “pure, real, true food.” However, the foundation recently launched a 10-year campaign “to change Puget Sound’s food for good.” Its leaders believe that we are at the right time and in the right place to make pivotal shifts.
“When we buy local or grow our own food, we are getting that much closer to the food source,” says Morris. “We know what we’re putting in our body and not harming the Earth while at it.” Morris, who comes from a family of educators, feels especially passionate about youth having agency over their lives. She loves spreading knowledge and improving people’s lives in the process, especially on her own turf. “Seattle is my home,” she says proudly. “This is my community.”
Sound Food Uprising
This unique curriculum is divided into two, three-hour sessions and offered to adults across Puget Sound in cohorts of 20. The leaders state upfront that they’re “working to change the supply of overly processed, heavily sugared, additive-laden food in our region by shifting the demand through education, public relations, and community engagement.”
The sessions include a brief history of “everything food,” as well as confidence-boosting lessons on how to use knives, make simple salad dressings, and concoct one-pan meals. Small groups work together to make a delicious snack at the beginning of class and a larger meal later on. Attendees also learn such shocking stats as: likely more than 1,000 chemicals allowed in our food supply have never been reviewed by the FDA; 3,000 are backlogged for review; and only 17 have been rejected since 1998. Yet attendees also walk away with uplifting knowledge on how to shop smarter, and with a better understanding of their power as consumers.
Pure Food Kids Workshop
These workshops, even more interactive than the adult ones, are free, 2.5-hour sessions offered to fourth- and fifth-graders in Puget Sound (and to a smaller extent, New York City). Over the course of one year, instructors visit 275 schools, where they lead a fun-filled, in-class program that turns kids into “food detectives.”
This year, the team taught its 125,000th student; Morris commends cooperation from a “great networks of teachers, principals, and staff.” She explains that, for the 25 percent of King County elementary schools they haven’t yet reached, the team plans to prioritize Title I schools. “We are very deliberate about access,” Morris says.
Kelly Lake, director of programs, explains that the “food detective” concept evolved spontaneously during an early presentation, and the term stuck. “It has been a great way to frame the entire mission of the program. We work hard not to bring fear or anxiety into kids’ relationship with food — just empowerment and curiosity — and the detective theme conveys this perfectly. Plus, what kid doesn’t want to pretend to be a detective for a couple of hours?”
During the programming, kids explore foods, learn how companies market to consumers (think Tony the Tiger and Gatorade-toting pro athletes), and make “shocking discoveries”— like how no actual fruit exists in Froot Loops, for example. At the end of each workshop, every student gets a plastic knife and cutting board, and the group collectively prepares the foundation’s famous vegetarian chili. “Our hope is that kids leave with a newfound curiosity about what is in their food,” says Lake, “and with some real-life cooking skills that they can share with their families.”
The team loves working with this age group because of the kids’ natural curiosity, as they’ve just begun understanding how food can affect their bodies. Also, Lake adds, they are one of the primary demographics targeted by food companies in terms of processed foods; in fact, she says, children under 12 are thought to influence $200 billion in food spending every year.
“One of the biggest benefits to working with 9- and 10-year-olds is helping them learn how to see through deceptive marketing so that they can influence better purchasing decisions for their whole household,” Lake notes. “Not to mention, they love having fun and are full of energy; the workshops are always a blast!”
When it comes to tracking data, Morris remarks, “We’re very interested in being serious about good program evaluation.”
“We have definitely seen its lasting impact,” Lake adds. “We collect pre- and post-data from kids, and kids report that they are more curious after taking the workshop and plan to use their new detective skills. We have also collected some two-year follow-up data [showing that these kids] are more likely to remember how to check a serving size, how to see how much sugar might be hiding in their food, and how to identify marketing tactics used by the food company.”
The organizers have received anecdotal evidence from parents, too — reports of youngsters ridding pantries of sugary breakfast cereals or helping the family add the foundation’s chili into the regular dinner rotation.
Lake considers the biggest challenge to be staying on top of food trends and changes in the food industry. “Every summer, we sit down and review our curriculum to make sure that any new ingredients, food laws, or product changes are taken into account, but sometimes, we have to adapt our curriculum partway through the year if one of the products our students investigate changes.”
The most rewarding aspect of running these programs? Photos and letters received nearly weekly from students. “We recently got a whole stack of thank-you notes from one classroom,” says Lake, “and every card was a food pun!”
However, the foundation knows that its work is far from done, so new programs are in the works. “The letters that come into our small office,” says Lake, “are a good reminder that our small team of instructors is out there making a difference in the lives of kids and adults who are shaping our food system with their purchases every day.”
“Part of our model is bringing the workshops to as many people as possible, which means we only see each kid for 2.5 hours and each adult for 6 hours,” Lake continues. “A lot of literature will tell you that’s not enough time to create significant change, but we are managing to make a real difference.”
Corinne Whiting loved learning about the important work of the Beecher’s Foundation team, and only wishes she had been exposed to such information as a kid, too. She can’t wait to make the healthy garbanzo snack for her friends and family.