Crowdfunding Nutrition: Using Kickstarter to Make Kids Healthier

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Can the popular startup make a dent in nutrition education? One school finds it more difficult than expected.

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Kristy McCarron/Kickstarter

Childhood nutrition and anti-obesity campaigns are a hot topic these days. Gardens and cooking classes are in demand in schools around the country.

But how much would you, personally, be willing to shell out of pocket to help our nation's kids eat healthier? In a time of tight purse strings, several schools are asking that question with the help of the popular crowd-funding site, Kickstarter.

"My name is Kristy McCarron, and this is where I spend my day off," a young woman's voice tells us in the intro video of one Kickstarter campaign. She's referring to a classroom at Walker Jones elementary school in Washington, D.C., where she teaches kids about food -- where it comes from, why it's good for them, and how to cook it, too.

McCarron is now trying to raise $25,000 to help build a "food lab" kitchen at the school, which she would run as a full-time teacher.

While many of us may think of Kickstarter as a place where tech-savvy 20-somethings raise money to make the newest iPhone accessory, McCarron says it was a perfect fit for her school, too.

"I kind of just took a big leap of faith and quit my job and started this fundraising pitch," she says, confessing that she hadn't even heard of Kickstarter until a friend turned her onto it for this project.

McCarron has spent the past 8 months volunteering as a part-time nutrition instructor at Walker Jones, which is a historically African American, title-one high poverty school where 100 percent of the students receive free breakfast, lunch, and dinner. She worked nights as a chef at Nora, a well-known, upscale organic restaurant in downtown D.C.

A lot of excitement has surrounded her classes, from kids and parents alike, she says, though she had to get creative with the classes for lack of equipment.

"For most of my time here so far, we didn't have a working stove or a working oven. The projects we did were almost entirely raw -- a lot of raw fruits and veggies, which is kind of hard in the winter," she explains. "I brought in a burner oven from work once to help out, but that's really all the equipment we had."

She had students make raw kale salads and healthy granola bars -- both big hits. The kids compared the fat content in different milks, too, and during one opportunity when a local Whole Foods donated a batch of shrimp, the students made ceviche, which gave them a chance to learn about the effects of citric acid.

But now, McCarron wants to make a bigger impact, and what she needs is a stove, for starters.

As broken down on the Kickstarter page, the $25,000 McCarron seeks to raise with Walker Jones would go toward cooking supplies (i.e. food), equipment (induction burners, utensils, and the like), and personnel (McCarron's stipend).

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Walker Jones is not the first school to turn to Kickstarter for funding a nutrition program, and it probably won't be the last. But the results so far have been mixed.

Just last week , an elementary school in Iowa raised slightly more than its goals of $5,000 to put the finishing touches on their own teaching kitchen. Earlier this month, an educational "truck farm" got the $11,000 it needed to stay on the road, serving Chicago youngsters. A "Home and Garden Economics" project from L.A., however, was not as lucky -- it was able to raise only a fraction of its $11,000 goal, which by Kickstarter rules means it got zilch.

In D.C., just three miles from Walker Jones, another elementary school scored one of the biggest successes so far when they raised over $60,000. But it was not easy, says Bernadine Prince, co-founder and co-director of FreshFarm Markets, a non-profit that runs 11 of the D.C.-area's farmers' markets. FreshFarm, which is also involved in nutrition education programs at local schools, partnered with Capitol Hill's Watkins Elementary to get their "FoodPrints" program off the ground.

"When you first kick-off a Kickstarter campaign, the money starts flowing in, because all those people who already know about the project and have been waiting for you to send the word out to donate, and you start seeing it add up very quickly," says Prince. Eventually that initial flood of enthusiasm and money from friends and family levels off, however, and that's when things get hectic.

"We were down to the last week of the Kickstarter, and we were still about $20,000-25,000 short of the goal," she says. So Prince and another woman who ran the Kickstarter campaign for FreshFarm and Watkins ramped up their pitch with near-daily updates, and even asked many of their contributors to donate for a second time. They has some outside help too in the form of an "angel" donor: D.C. celebrity chef Jose Andres, who donated $7,500 himself. And it all came together in the end.

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Nadja Popovich is a writer and producer focusing on health, science, politics, and the overlap between the three. Her work has appeared on the Guardian U.S. and NPR, among other outlets. 

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