Sam Kass: Want kids to learn well? Feed them well @ TED Talks Live

TED Talks Live were held at The Town Hall Theater in NYC, in November of 2015. I had the pleasure of attending all six nights to hear speakers present impactful Ideas Worth Spreading. This post is an analysis of a talk by Sam Kass about the connection between proper nutrition and success in childhood education.

Watch Sam’s TED Talk. The issues related to proper nutrition and the quality of a child’s education are complex, but Sam provides us with an example of one such solution that has seen positive results. But this talk is also about the choices that storytellers must make in regards to focus and impact.


(my notes in red)

I am a chef and a food policy guy, but I come from a whole family of teachers. My sister is a special ed teacher in Chicago. My father just retired after 25 years teaching fifth grade. My aunt and uncle were professors. My cousins all teach. Everybody in my family, basically, teaches except for me.

They taught me that the only way to get the right answers is to ask the right questions. So what are the right questions when it comes to improving the educational outcomes for our children? There’s obviously many important questions, but I think the following is a good place to start: What do we think the connection is between a child’s growing mind and their growing body? What can we expect our kids to learn if their diets are full of sugar and empty of nutrients? What can they possibly learn if their bodies are literally going hungry? And with all the resources that we are pouring into schools, we should stop and ask ourselves: Are we really setting our kids up for success?

We know about chefs, and teachers, but the phrase ‘food policy guy’ is a bit unusual, and that has the audience wondering where his story will take them. Leveraging what he learned from the teachers in his family, Sam asks a series of questions which outline his narrative. Beyond serving as a precursor for his story, the technique of opening a story with questions can also engage the audience and get their cognitive wheels turning.

Now, a few years ago, I was a judge on a cooking competition called “Chopped.” Four chefs compete with mystery ingredients to see who can cook the best dishes. Except for this episode — it was a very special one. Instead of four overzealous chefs trying to break into the limelight — something that I would know nothing about — (Laughter) these chefs were school chefs; you know, the women that you used to call “lunch ladies,” but the ones I insist we call “school chefs.” Now, these women — God bless these women — they spend their day cooking for thousands of kids, breakfast and lunch, with only $2.68 per lunch, with only about a dollar of that actually going to the food. In this episode, the main-course mystery ingredient was quinoa. Now, I know it’s been a long time since most of you have had a school lunch, and we’ve made a lot of progress on nutrition, but quinoa still is not a staple in most school cafeterias.

Many people will have seen Sam on television, but for those that have not, his quick mention of that fact tells us that he’s not just a chef (he told us that in his opening line) but a chef who is good enough to be a judge for a cooking competition. Often times you can provide a single sentence that says a lot about who you are in connection to the story you’re telling.

So this was a challenge. But the dish that I will never forget was cooked by a woman named Cheryl Barbara. Cheryl was the nutrition director at High School in the Community in Connecticut. She cooked this delicious pasta. It was amazing. It was a pappardelle with Italian sausage, kale, Parmesan cheese. It was delicious, like, restaurant-quality good, except — she basically just threw the quinoa, pretty much uncooked, into the dish. It was a strange choice, and it was super crunchy. So I took on the TV accusatory judge thing that you’re supposed to do, and I asked her why she did that.

Cheryl responded, “Well, first, I don’t know what quinoa is.” (Laughter) “But I do know that it’s a Monday, and that in my school, at High School in the Community, I always cook pasta.”

See, Cheryl explained that for many of her kids, there were no meals on the weekends. No meals on Saturday. No meals on Sunday, either. So Cheryl cooked pasta because she wanted to make sure she cooked something she knew her children would eat. Something that would stick to their ribs, she said. Something that would fill them up. Cheryl talked about how, by the time Monday came, her kids’ hunger pangs were so intense that they couldn’t even begin to think about learning. Food was the only thing on their mind. The only thing. And unfortunately, the stats — they tell the same story.

This story block is about someone other than Sam. In this case, it’s someone that he has met and interacted with, so he could tell it from personal experience, but we are basically in the shoes of this other person. Think about the people you have met that could be part of your narrative. Capture those as current or future story blocks. Some speakers have dozens of such stories to draw on.

So, let’s put this into the context of a child. And we’re going to focus on the most important meal of the day, breakfast. Meet Allison. She’s 12 years old, she’s smart as a whip and she wants to be a physicist when she grows up. If Allison goes to a school that serves a nutritious breakfast to all of their kids, here’s what’s going to follow. Her chances of getting a nutritious meal, one with fruit and milk, one lower in sugar and salt, dramatically increase. Allison will have a lower rate of obesity than the average kid. She’ll have to visit the nurse less. She’ll have lower levels of anxiety and depression. She’ll have better behavior. She’ll have better attendance, and she’ll show up on time more often. Why? Well, because there’s a good meal waiting for her at school. Overall, Allison is in much better health than the average school kid.

So what about that kid who doesn’t have a nutritious breakfast waiting for him? Well, meet Tommy. He’s also 12. He’s a wonderful kid. He wants to be a doctor. By the time Tommy is in kindergarten, he’s already underperforming in math. By the time he’s in third grade, he’s got lower math and reading scores. By the time he’s 11, it’s more likely that Tommy will have to have repeated a grade. Research shows that kids who do not have consistent nourishment, particularly at breakfast, have poor cognitive function overall.

Here we have two more stories of other people – both designed to illustrate the connection between educational success and healthy nutrition – with one having a positive outcome, while the other outcome is negative. The use of contrasting stories is a common technique, used to show what happens when one path is taken over the other.

Sometimes these paths are imposed – in this case we’re dealing with children who don’t really have a choice – but in other situations the path is chosen – an adult who chooses to eat too much, or drink too much, or smoke cigarettes. In either case, the audience knows which is the better path, but they also know there are challenges to taking that path. This dilemma sets up the next phase of the story.

So how widespread is this problem? Well, unfortunately, it’s pervasive. Let me give you two stats that seem like they’re on opposite ends of the issue, but are actually two sides of the same coin. On the one hand, one in six Americans are food insecure, including 16 million children — almost 20 percent — are food insecure. In this city alone, in New York City, 474,000 kids under the age of 18 face hunger every year. It’s crazy.

On the other hand, diet and nutrition is the number one cause of preventable death and disease in this country, by far. And fully a third of the kids that we’ve been talking about tonight are on track to have diabetes in their lifetime.

Now, what’s hard to put together but is true is that, many times, these are the same children. So they fill up on the unhealthy and cheap calories that surround them in their communities and that their families can afford. But then by the end of the month, food stamps run out or hours get cut at work, and they don’t have the money to cover the basic cost of food.

Sam offers a statistical story block to demonstrate the magnitude of the problem. It’s very shocking to hear that nearly a half million kids in New York City face hunger every year. Are there statistics that can help support your narrative, that can highlight the importance of your message? You can use static numbers, or present a trend line if the numbers are going up or down.

But I would also like to mention Sam’s use of the phrase ‘diet and nutrition is the number one cause of preventable death and disease in this country, by far’. I found it equally shocking, yet it didn’t ring true for me. I’m not saying it was a false statement, but it seemed to be such a serious claim that it needed an explanation. What are the categories of ‘preventable death and disease’ that he’s talking about? What are the relevant statistics?

The point is, when you’re making a serious claim – about anything – consider whether you need to explain it further, or provide statistics, or quote the source of your claim.

But we should be able to solve this problem, right? We know what the answers are. As part of my work at the White House, we instituted a program that for all schools that had 40 percent more low-income kids, we could serve breakfast and lunch to every kid in that school. For free.

This program has been incredibly successful, because it helped us overcome a very difficult barrier when it came to getting kids a nutritious breakfast. And that was the barrier of stigma. See, schools serve breakfast before school, and it was only available for the poor kids. So everybody knew who was poor and who needed government help.

Now, all kids, no matter how much or how little their parents make, have a lot of pride. So what happened? Well, the schools that have implemented this program saw an increase in math and reading scores by 17.5 percent. 17.5 percent. And research shows that when kids have a consistent, nutritious breakfast, their chances of graduating increase by 20 percent. 20 percent. When we give our kids the nourishment they need, we give them the chance to thrive, both in the classroom and beyond.

The story now pivots from problem to solution, and we get one more slice of information about Sam – that he was working on this project at the White House. If he was to expand this story from its short 12 minute format to keynote length, these few words could become a significant story block of its own. The beauty of story blocks is how they can be expanded or contracted based on the time allowed.

Now, you don’t have to trust me on this, but you should talk to Donna Martin. I love Donna Martin. Donna Martin is the school nutrition director at Burke County in Waynesboro, Georgia. Burke County is one of the poorest districts in the fifth-poorest state in the country, and about 100 percent of Donna’s students live at or below the poverty line. A few years ago, Donna decided to get out ahead of the new standards that were coming, and overhaul her nutrition standards. She improved and added fruit and vegetables and whole grains. She served breakfast in the classroom to all of her kids. And she implemented a dinner program. Why? Well, many of her kids didn’t have dinner when they went home.

So how did they respond? Well, the kids, they loved the food. They loved the better nutrition, and they loved not being hungry. But Donna’s biggest supporter came from an unexpected place. His name was Eric Parker, and he was the head football coach for the Burke County Bears. Now, Coach Parker had coached mediocre teams for years. The Bears often ended in the middle of the pack — a big disappointment in one of the most passionate football states in the Union. But the year Donna changed the menus, the Bears not only won their division, they went on to win the state championship, beating the Peach County Trojans 28-14.

And Coach Parker, he credited that championship to Donna Martin.

This is a fun story block about how the football team improved their performance after the food program was improved, but it feels off topic to me and takes away from what I feel is the more important story of the link between nutrition and education. It’s a stylistic choice, of course, but when you want your story to have the most impact possible, carefully consider what content you will include, and what content to leave out. Especially when you have a very limited time to tell it. Some points that work in a long talk can be cut in a shorter talk.

When we give our kids the basic nourishment, they’re going to thrive. And it’s not just up to the Cheryl Barbaras and the Donna Martins of the world. It’s on all of us. And feeding our kids the basic nutrition is just the starting point. What I’ve laid out is really a model for so many of the most pressing issues that we face.

If we focus on the simple goal of properly nourishing ourselves, we could see a world that is more stable and secure; we could dramatically improve our economic productivity; we could transform our health care and we could go a long way in ensuring that the Earth can provide for generations to come. Food is that place where our collective efforts can have the greatest impact.

I think we would all agree with Sam that proper nutrition is linked to a wide range of global issues, but it’s unusual to begin on one topic – education – then expand it – athletics – and expand it further still – economics and health care. On the one hand, it speaks to how important the topic of nutrition is, but on the other hand, it strays from the opening topic. In the end, such decisions are up to the storyteller. I would simply suggest that you never stray from the intent of maximizing impact.

So we have to ask ourselves: What is the right question? What would happen if we fed ourselves more nutritious, more sustainably grown food? What would be the impact? Cheryl Barbara, Donna Martin, Coach Parker and the Burke County Bears — I think they know the answer.

Thank you guys so very much.

[Note: all comments inserted into this transcript are my opinions, not those of the speaker, the TED organization, nor anyone else on the planet. In my view, each story is unique, as is every interpretation of that story. The sole purpose of these analytical posts is to inspire a storyteller to become a storylistener, and in doing so, make their stories more impactful.]

Learn more about the coaching process or
contact me to discuss your storytelling goals!

Subscribe to our newsletter for the latest updates!

Copyright Storytelling with Impact – All rights reserved