Most of us can recite a few school-lunch horror stories. All too often, “mystery meat” and “tater ‘not’ hot dish” turn what could be an enjoyable meal into a sensory nightmare.

And it gets even worse: The nutritional profile of many school lunches actually damages kids. One Michigan study, for example, found that sixth graders who ate school lunch were almost 30 percent more likely to be obese than kids who brought bag lunches from home.

Lousy lunches would be bad enough if they only impacted kids’ bodies. But just like the classroom, the lunch room is a place of learning. So the question is, do we really want to teach our children that food is bland and blechhy? Or do we want to teach them it’s a bountiful harvest that nourishes body, mind and soul?

The Whole Kids Foundation answers that question with programming that helps students make healthy food choices and educates them and their teachers with hands-on learning in the garden. Founded in 2011 by Whole Foods Market, the program was initially a grassroots initiative to raise awareness about the importance of healthy school lunches. From its beginnings as an informative, online toolkit, the organization has rapidly grown to have a major impact on students.

Wholekids Foundation 02Whole Kids’ fundamental programming is simple. The group provides grants to schools so that they can put salad bars in the lunchroom and start gardens in the schoolyard. Another grant provides nutrition and cooking education for teachers. To date, the group has funded some 3,400 school salad bars, 2,100 school gardens and 4,000 teacher trainings, for a combined estimated impact on more than 2.7 million children.

If you’ve ever tasted a sweet, homegrown strawberry in June or a sun-ripened tomato plucked from an August vine, then you understand the transformative power of the Whole Kids agenda. When kids dig in the garden, grow their own food and taste the bounty of the harvest, they connect in a vital, tangible way to their food choices.

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“Kids are filled with wonder and curiosity,” says Nona Evans, the group’s president and executive director. “Our goal is to tap into that and help them connect to the roots of food. It’s amazing how the simple act of growing food makes kids so much more willing to taste and eat vegetables.”

The learning extends from the kids to the teachers, parents and other adults in their lives. Alongside the youngsters, the grownups learn the value of nutrition and gain a respect and understanding for the process of growing food. And they also gain some respect for the children themselves: “Sometimes, our hardest job,” says Evans, “is convincing adults that kids will make good choices if we give them good choices.”

Organic Valley has always been committed to fostering organic health and wellness in the youth of America and is proud to support the Whole Kids Foundation.