By Sam Woods
This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Visit milwaukeenns.org.
Lisa Kingery is on a mission.
The founder of FoodRight teaches kids how to prepare healthy foods.
Now serving about 1,200 students citywide in five MPS schools, FoodRight has developed curricula for students in kindergarten through eighth grade to help them gain experience with cooking different foods and using kitchen equipment.
This hands-on approach to learning is important to Kingery, who said that it helps break up the school day and get kids moving and learning with their hands when they otherwise may not have the chance to do so.
“Our curriculum is very experiential; they’re learning by doing,” Kingery said.
Maddy Kruckowski took part in FoodRight’s program for fifth graders in the fall. She said she did not know what to expect at first but came away with new foods she liked and new cooking vocabulary words like “mincing” and “chopping.”
“They explained what healthy foods are and broke down everything about healthy eating habits before bringing in materials and letting us do our own thing,” Maddy said. “It was really like it was us cooking on our own.”
Seeing a need
FoodRight’s origins can be traced to 2006, when Kingery conducted a needs assessment while she was working at the Fondy Food Center using a grant from the Greater Milwaukee Foundation. The goal was to explore the need for culinary education in Milwaukee, and Kingery found that there was “almost zero” culinary curricula available in the central city, particularly in middle school.
Kingery noted that this lack of middle school culinary education was especially concerning because middle school is a time when many kids are beginning to make more food on their own. This made for an opportunity to expose kids to healthy foods early on.
In 2007, Kingery began developing a curriculum for middle schoolers that would become FoodRight’s Youth Chef Academy. The curriculum was designed to get students out of their seats and practice making healthy foods in a way that also incorporated literacy and math lessons.
In 2012, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee did an official evaluation of the middle-school curriculum, confirming that it actually did change eating habits.
For Kingery, this was big. Not only because it affirmed her programming was on the right track, but because it matched her personal goals for encouraging healthy eating.
“I’m a registered public health dietician. I want to change how they eat,” Kingery said.
FoodRight was officially registered as a 501(c)3 nonprofit in 2015. By 2018, it had developed elementary school curriculum to match its middle school offerings and hired full-time employees to help implement the curriculum in school buildings.
Then 2020 (and COVID-19) came, and suddenly all students were learning virtually.
While FoodRight could no longer rely solely on providing in-person programming, the nonprofit pivoted to providing meal kits with preparation instructions so students could learn alongside family members.
Kingery credits the Kohl’s Healthy Families program and the American Cancer Society for making this pivot possible. The grant enabled Kingery to purchase the take-home kits that augmented FoodRight’s virtual programming.
Even as students have returned to in-person learning, the program has remained.
“Now the kids have eight lessons in the classroom with us, two ingredient kits to make at home and two virtual lessons with us to make meals that the whole family can share,” Kingery said.
Andrea Rivera, who is Maddy’s mother, has chaperoned the class in person and made recipes from the class at home with her daughter.
Beyond providing an engaging in-person curriculum that has introduced Maddy and the family to new foods such as zucchini fritters and Cajun popcorn, Rivera is confident that FoodRight’s programming is changing lives for the better.
“It will change their eating habits. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but in the long run,” Rivera said.
For Kingery, this kind of feedback is exactly what keeps her going.
“Food choices as a kid have a long-term impact on your life,” Kingery said. “It is my life’s work to change how Milwaukee kids eat.”