Lunch Ladies

Manhattan Beach moms cook up a grassroots campaign aimed at getting local school kids to eat healthier.

Whether it’s a busy schedule, a picky eater or the alluring convenience of processed foods, motivating kids to adopt healthy eating habits can be a challenge. But it’s a challenge that GrowingGreat, a community-based nonprofit focused on the nutritional education of elementary school students, is taking head on. 

Founded in 1999 by Marika Bergsund, Peggy Curry and Lori Sherman, Growing-Great began as a single elementary school garden in the Manhattan Beach Unified School District. Now with two integrated programs—School Gardens and Classroom Nutrition—GrowingGreat aims to make healthy eating more than just a lesson but a way of life. 

Students play a role in the planting, tending and harvesting of their school gardens and even participate in a student-run farmers market. During Classroom Nutrition, GrowingGreat docents teach students about serving sizes, reading labels and high-quality foods. 

“We don’t like to use the word ‘bad,’” explains Jill Coons, GrowingGreat’s director of education. “It’s more about fueling your engine and eating foods that are closest to their source.” 

By providing students with the tools they need to recognize the nutritional differences between apple-flavored cereal, apple juice and a fresh, unprocessed apple, GrowingGreat strives to make a positive impact on how kids think and feel about what they eat.

“I love food,” says co-founder Peggy Curry. “It brings people together.” And that’s exactly what the nonprofit is doing. With a little help from their friends, GrowingGreat has been spreading their message.

During March, a group of local restaurants partnered with GrowingGreat for Healthy Eating Month, creating nutritious menu options and donating a portion of the proceeds to the nonprofit. Participants included: The Strand House, Rock’n Fish, M.B. Post, Fishing With Dynamite, Shade Hotel, Rock & Brews and Farm Stand. 

With the support of the Manhattan Beach Famers Market, GrowingGreat has included a “Harvest of the Month” in their the Garden Education Program, providing fun facts and samples of seasonal fruits to students.

Adding an eco-friendly element to eating nutrient-rich foods, GrowingGreat has worked with local mom and founder of Go Green Lunch Box, Kim Castner, taking her reusable, trash-free lunch boxes into the classroom. Minimizing waste becomes part of the lesson with this environmentally friendly alternative to disposable lunch bags. A lesson in waste reduction is supported by Waste Management, which provides complimentary Go Green Lunch Boxes to every first-grade student attending public school in Manhattan Beach. 

To celebrate the past 15 years of inspiring nutritional awareness, GrowingGreat held their Farm-to-Table Benefit on July 12. The event, which sold out within the first week of ticket sales, served a family-style dinner of locally sourced food and wine to more than 200 guests. 

Attendees watched as celebrity chefs David LeFevre (owner and executive chef of M.B. Post and Fishing With Dynamite), Dustin Lewandowski (executive chef of Wolfgang Puck at MGM Grand), Stephanie Franz (The Strand House) and Alan Jackson (founder and executive chef of Lemonade) prepared their favorite healthy dishes. Restaurateurs Michael Zislis and Andrea Zislis were honored, as well as long-time South Bay Farmers Market manager, the late Mary Lou Weiss.

GrowingGreat continues to expand their reach through individuals and corporate sponsors, as well as affiliated organizations, including Kim and Jack Johnson’s group, Johnson Ohana Charitable Foundation. 

GrowingGreat, the small, grassroots nonprofit that began in South Bay, has evolved into an organization providing nutritional education to more than 30,000 students across Southern California, Las Vegas and Oahu—an incredible achievement originated from the vision of one mother and brought to fruition by the efforts of many.