The Bon Appétit team at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland isn’t serving just college students and staff. As part of their community outreach efforts, they’ve developed a relationship with the “scholars” at a nearby K-6 charter school called Stepstone Academy.
The academy serves some of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods in the city. Right around Case Western’s campus, this area has the second-highest child poverty rate of any major city; 89% of students are eligible for free and reduced meals.
Bon Appétit Resident District Manager Jim O’Brien first learned about Stepstone Academy through his wife, Andrea, who works for Ohio Guide Stone, the nonprofit community services organization that helped found the school in 2012. Ever since its inception, Jim has been inspired by the school and its students, and he wanted to find a way to engage them in Bon Appetit’s mission.
He started simply, by inviting the Stepstone scholars to eat at Case Western. The idea was to expose the scholars simultaneously to a college campus (so they could picture themselves there); to fresh, healthy foods; and to where food actually comes from (not the grocery store!). Stepstone’s first-ever cohort of kindergarteners came to Case for lunch, and a Farm to Fork partner gave a presentation about local foods and how many potatoes they sell to the college to feed students. Every scholar got a local potato to take home, a visual and tactile reminder that food starts out in the soil.
Since then, Stepstone scholars have come to Case Western every year to eat a meal on the last day of the board plan. And as the school has grown, so has Bon Appetit’s involvement. Over the past five years, the team at Case Western has hosted cooking classes for the Stepstone Scholars and brought Case Western’s Dub Box to Stepstone several times for community outreach events. They’ve served snacks and lessons that focused on tasting fruits and vegetables and preparing healthy meals.
“We’re excited that the scholars are getting much information about local and fresh food,” Jim explained. “We want to share our knowledge of food with them, providing the tools to be able to recognize food that is nutritious, good for the body and mind.”
This exposure to produce can be especially important for students who may not have regular access to fresh fruits and vegetables. In Cuyohoga County, where Stepstone is located, fast food is (on average) 4.5 times as readily available as a full-service grocery store.
Not long ago, I had the opportunity to help host a Healthy Kids in the Bon Appetit kitchen class with Stepstone’s 5th grade scholars, the same group of students who first came to Case for lunch. Manager of Food Education for Children Hannah Schmunk, Campus Executive Chef Vinnie Gaikens, Executive Chef Rob Washington, and I together led a lesson on transforming fruits and vegetables into a scrumptious meal of garden tacos and fruit kabobs. We covered basic knife skills, as well as how to spot what vitamins a fruit or vegetable may have based on what color it is. Vinnie even threw in a lesson on composting food scraps, complete with actual compost from the Case Western farm that had been made with campus kitchen scraps.
Healthy Kids was a perfect fit at Stepstone. “This event was just a natural progression of our longtime relationship with the school and a great opportunity to focus on the first class that we worked with five years ago,” Jim explained. As the school has grown, several Case Western Bon Appetit employees have enrolled their children at Stepstone, making the connection between the school and Bon Appétit even more meaningful.
It is always heartening for me to see relationships between Bon Appétiters and the communities in which they work. I believe that the institutions Bon Appétit serves, particularly colleges and universities, have a powerful ability to shape the lives around them. To date as a Fellow, I have been focused on how Bon Appétit can support local farmers and business owners through the Farm to Fork and Locally Crafted foods we purchase, but programs like Healthy Kids and exceptional examples like Case Western and Stepstone Academy show how our mission can extend far beyond food procurement and feeding our guests, into opportunities to share meals with our neighbors and to learn from one another.