IN SCHOOL circles, they’re known as “the chili people.”
That would be the educators from the Pure Food Kids Workshop, a program aimed at teaching fourth- and fifth-graders how to cut through clever packaging and marketing tactics that push processed foods to kids. The 2½-hour free class provides a crash course in nutrition, reading labels and hands-on home cooking.
Although it’s not obvious from the curriculum, the workshop and its parent Flagship Foundation are funded chiefly through a food company.
Kurt Dammeier, head of Beecher’s Handmade Cheese and assorted Seattle-area businesses and restaurants, founded the nonprofit in 2004 and has sent 1 percent of his proceeds toward it ever since. As Beecher’s has thrived and his other businesses have expanded, the foundation’s resources and reach have mushroomed as well.
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The course, and its homemade chili recipe (see www.seattletimes.com/pacificnw), reached more than 11,000 students last year alone, mostly in the Greater Seattle area. Some are in New York, which houses a second Beecher’s factory.
“Here, our goal is saturation,” said foundation executive director Kristin Hyde — and she is not talking about fat.
Corporate influences on schools are usually controversial. The Pure Food educators, though, stay entirely away from products made by Dammeier’s Sugar Mountain company or any mention of the businesses.
If students did study Dammeier’s products and ventures, though, they’d be pleased. The entire company was founded out of Dammeier’s convictions that foods should be free of harmful additives and that people should know more about what they eat. Foundation staff worked with state education officials early on to make sure the lessons fulfilled Washington requirements for nutrition education.
In a small survey the foundation conducted this year, teachers and parents both reported lasting effects after the one-time class. Students were more inclined to read food labels, more likely to avoid processed foods, more interested in cooking at home. Even teachers said they’d learned things they hadn’t known before, such as the surprisingly high sugar content of most flavored yogurts.
“They really were about what they said they were about, which was helping kids understand food marketing, food labeling and promoting simpler and healthier (foods),” said Kent Ferris, whose fourth-grade students went through the curriculum earlier this year at Lafayette Elementary School.
“As a consumer, you have to be aware that you can’t just assume the picture is going to tell the truth,” he said.
In practical terms, that meant students learned that they wouldn’t always find strawberries on an ingredient label even when a box of cereal prominently displayed the ripe fruits.
In some cases, they did more than listen and remember. They acted.
Among the boxed foods the staffers brought as props, Ferris recalled, the Froot Loops cereal failed every measure the educators put them through, from artificial colors to sugar content (it’s the first ingredient).
“One of the kids said, ‘What can we do about that?’ The instructor said they could always try the 800 number on the back of the box and share their opinions with the company.”
Through the hotline, he recalled, the kids were told that the company wouldn’t give a petition asking for changes much credence unless it had more than 200 signatures. The next day, the kids were back with paper and pencil, “gathering signatures like crazy” until they had met that mark to send them in.
Oh, and several kids in the class reported going home to make that chili recipe. It’s gluten-free, dairy-free and full of simple whole foods. Here’s a link to the recipe:
Rebekah Denn is a freelance writer who regularly contributes to The Seattle Times All You Can Eat blog. John Lok is a Times staff photographer.