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Meet Chonnie Richey of Independence Gardens in Lewisville

Today we’d like to introduce you to Chonnie Richey.

So, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
My journey began with a story. I think stories are a powerful thing. They can make us laugh, make us cry, spark a revolution, and touch our very soul. We are moved to do – what others see as the impossible when we experience a story or stories that have such a profound impact on what I like to call our inner “superhero” – it prompts us to act and move the universe.

It all started with a simple school lunch. It’s a right of passage for every mom to have school lunch with their first child when she starts kindergarten. And who wouldn’t? One of the most memorable times of my childhood was school lunch – the hamburger that looked like a burger, tasted a burger, but rumor said was not; the super greasy pizza; and chugging down the chocolate milk from the carton.

When I walked into the front office, the first thing they asked me was – what did you bring Sofia (my daughter) for lunch?

Thinking about that burger, I said to her – I’m here for the cafeteria food. If I could have taken her picture the moment those words left my mouth – she grimaced – and I could have sworn her face turned a shade of green. And all she said was – next time you may want to bring it. Curious, we got our food, sat down, watched Sofia and other children around us – pick at their food – chug the chocolate milk, and saw how they threw away almost 60% of their food. First, the green beans were a shade of green I’ve never seen before and the following went through my mind: As a chef, I wouldn’t serve this food to my customers. More important, as a mom, I thought how could they feed this to my child – food that will nourish her throughout the day – when the staff clearly warned me to stay away from it.

I started doing my research and every data I came across when it came to nutrition education, lack of access to fresh food, and the direct correlation with childhood obesity: Information like:

1. 1 in 3 children in Texas is obese
2. Millions of dollars of wasted food
3. 60% are vegetables and 40% are fruit
4. 23.5 Million live in food deserts (communities where access to affordable, healthy food options is limited or nonexistent )

Even as we’re faced with daunting information, what I call the “happy seed” begins to take root in all of us. That seed comes from the overwhelming belief – when the youngest and most vulnerable of our citizens are threatened in any way – that action needs to be taken – and we can make a difference. At that moment, we don’t know how we’re going to make it work, how the pieces fit – all the details around it. But when we start BELIEVING, we become the spark – and when that happens – we have already started making a difference.

The mission behind Independence Gardens seeded that day. I saw the Vision of what the organization would become. One thing was clear, students couldn’t connect with the food they were eating and therefore had no understanding of its importance nutritionally. We were so focused on testing and student success, that we totally disregarded the food that fuels their body and mind – two critical aspects of how they can succeed academically. I started Owning the Vision on where we needed to go – and because I did – the universe started aligning to make it happen.

Like-minded, conscious individuals – started to believe as I do, owning that Vision as their own, so much so, that overnight, the community started to come together to make this a reality for their children. In the first few months, progressive school districts like the Lewisville Independent School District committed to the vision, local Home Depot stores became our build partner, and Aramark provided support for our chef-driven campaign, Come and Eat IT.

My parents would call it General Chonnie mustering the troops. I like to blame it on my DNA – coming from amazing parents who made service part of their daily lives. We immigrated from the Philippines when I was nine years old. My mom, a Pediatrician, always told me that school gardening was part of her curriculum growing up and that school gardening isn’t a new concept. We have just forgotten the importance of staying connected with the world that sustains us. Like her peers, she would say, studies clearly showed, if we can connect children to the food they are eating and growing, they will make healthier food choices as they grow. And mom’s are always right.

In 2012, I was fortunate enough to put to put together a parent-led team that believed in a similar vision of providing an engaging environment where ALL students, regardless of their socio-economic status can connect with food through experiential programs.

We built our first edible outdoor learning space in our namesake homeschool – Independence Elementary, providing each of the 800 children an opportunity to participate in this nutrition education experience. But it was more than a school garden, we incorporated organic practices and sustainable practices including: wicking beds, square foot gardening, composting, recycling, and water reclamation. We believed that by holistically teaching and connecting children with food – in this fashion – they will begin taking responsibility for the food they are eating – begin making healthier food choices, and contribute to the overall wellness of their world. And – when students learned actively versus passively, the connection happens automatically.

What I didn’t realize – was – with this singular thought – this belief to make things better for my daughter – we were also beginning to make a positive and profound impact on the overall well being of thousands of children in our community.

During our first harvest, as students around us were cleaning the beds, I overheard a conversation between two-second grade boys. They were talking about the carrots pulled from the beds -and one said to the other – have you ever seen carrots this color? Disbelieving at all the vegetables harvested – the other said no – I’ve never seen carrots this big or color. I didn’t even know carrots grew from the ground.

Of course, the natural question came up and I turned to these children and asked – where do you think carrots come from? Without missing a beat -they replied- you go to the grocery store, and they’re in a plastic bag. But they didn’t stop there. We planted apple trees on this campus, and one of the boys said – and we think there’s an apple growing on that tree. Isn’t it crazy how an apple grows on trees!

Let that sink in for a moment. These children had no concept of where they’re food comes from – could not relate at all. Therefore, how can we expect them to make healthier food choices – when they couldn’t even connect the food they’re eating – to how it actually grew? That was the “AHA” moment from every adult that witnessed that conversation.

That day, in the excitement of the children’s discovery, they didn’t know it yet, but they took control of the learning process and started leading the charge for a more impactful nutrition education. And where they led, the parents, like myself, who loved them followed.

Because everything we did was a reflection of that LOVE – Independence Gardens evolved and began to grow in such a way that even we didn’t anticipate.

We connected children with the food they were growing and eating through our Come and Eat IT Program. This is a chef-driven program where students cooked alongside chefs utilizing fruits and/or vegetables they are growing or will grow in their school/home garden. It also introduces a new ingredient to their pallet. Since we began this program four years ago, thousands of students have experienced this program.

In 2017, I received a text from one of the chefs that participated in Come and Eat IT. In this text, he asked if we can provide this program weekly. Thinking about the countless months and hours that went into planning this event for thousands of students – I didn’t say no (to my team’s chagrin) – but I wanted to find out why. He said – one of the students in the 4th-grade class was very excited about putting the recipe together – learning about all the vegetables – new ingredients – but when it was time to taste what they created – this student didn’t touch his food. His chef’s brain started thinking about all the reasons why – he doesn’t like it, he was a horrible teacher, etc. But when he asked the student why he wasn’t eating the food, the student told him, “I want to take this home to my parents because we don’t eat a lot of vegetables and they can’t afford any of these ingredients and will never taste anything like this in their life. And I want to share.”

What they made that day was a simple Caesar salad.

We started out to address the lack of impactful nutrition education program in our schools, but we were doing so much more. We were putting the roots down so children and their families in our schools, our communities aren’t going hungry. Giving them access to food – addressing their most basic needs.

The stories children and their families have shared regarding their experiences showed us the possibilities and the impact we can make is really why Independence Gardens seeded.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
I don’t know who said, that the right thing to do is often the hardest. This journey, so far, has had difficulties, but I’ve been told, I don’t know how to take “NO” for an answer. So I’ve turned those challenges into opportunities. Surprisingly, the obstacles have come from those that advocate for providing our children with new ways of learning.

I think we’ve gotten used to believing that anything outside of the norm is always going to be difficult. As parents, we are so used to being “passengers” in our child’s educational journey, that when asked to drive it, we don’t know which way to go. And when we do take the proverbial “wheel,” the power struggle – whether it’s real or not – starts.

Here’s what I knew. We are so focused on the concept of “testing” as a gauge of a student’s success, yet we disregard the food that fuels their day. We can’t expect them to succeed when we don’t provide their brain and body “clean” and “nutritionally dense” food. It’s so simple, yet we make it difficult and hide behind the “it’s always been done this way” or “kids don’t like fresh food” or “it’s too expensive” – wall. It’s always obstacles first and solutions second (or worse case – we do nothing).

I took the old fashion approach and began having conversations. We spoke to every decision maker, understanding their challenges and began formulating strategies that will have all parties finding a middle ground – always with this singular thought in mind – “we’re doing this for our children.”

In this whole journey, I realized that I started actively living my life; understanding the relationship and importance that connecting with each other had on human psyche. The belief that I can make a difference in my daughter’s life was a singular idea that sprouted into something more. It showed me that when we tap into the spark that’s in all of us – to consciously live our lives – making ordinary decisions every day – it’s because I wanted to provide an extraordinary world for every child.

I have always been a believer in the capacity of the human spirit. To act, thrive, move mountains when faced with a singular purpose to act consciously in order to make our communities better. And at the end of the day, our task is to convince all the unbelievers to believe in the possible – That they have within themselves the seed that can sprout positive change.

Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about Independence Gardens – what should we know?
Independence Gardens connects children to food through actionable, impactful nutrition education programs. It begins with our outdoor learning spaces (where we have 100% school participation) and provides opportunities for a hands-on approach to nutrition education including the study of organic gardening, composting, recycling, water reclamation, square foot gardening, and other sustainability practices. It continues with our Come and Eat IT Program. Chefs cook alongside students using recipes that are nutritionally dense an incorporates fruits/vegetables they are growing at school or their home garden.

While school gardening isn’t a new concept, what sets Independence Gardens apart is our approach to nutrition education and its impact on the community. We believe that growing the food is only the first step – albeit a critical step in the process. Children need to understand what to do with the food. When they learn how to cook, they are more apt to involve their families in the process. Families start making healthier food choices and all of a sudden communities start becoming healthier. Imagine a world, where children don’t have to worry about preventable diseases like diabetes, heart disease, or obesity? A world, where a child won’t go to school hungry because their schools can provide fresh food? With Independence Gardens, we see the possibility of what we can accomplish when we actively involved our community – from schools, parents, businesses, health officials, and like-minded organizations.

More important, I’m most proud of the parent-led team that has worked tirelessly the last six years, knowing the journey is long, but as committed to the vision as they were day one. Through their hard work, we have impacted, reached, and inspired thousands of lives in that short amount of time.

Any shoutouts? Who else deserves credit in this story – who has played a meaningful role?
The parent-led team (all 8 of us) deserve so much of the credit. They have been with me since day one and have continuously believed in the vision (and all my crazy ideas) of Independence Gardens. One of my biggest advocates is Oscar Miranda, Owner and Executive Chef of Wholesome Grub in Plano, Texas. He saw early on the importance of our organization and have been an avid supporter and cheerleader.

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