Chef Alli Sosna: Stretching the Dollar for Healthy Food

Chef Alli Sosna has provided elegant cuisine to some of Washington, DC’s most reputable kitchens. But always one to follow her heart and conscience, she has also been directly responsible for healthy meals being fed to over 1 million children in the District’s public schools. Her main effort today is MicroGreens—an organization that, through hands-on training, makes it possible for families on the federal SNAP (formerly food stamps) program to serve healthy meals within their SNAP allowances.


MicroGreens reaches out to a segment of the population that, perhaps more than any other, has a real need for access to healthy food. “More often than not, a lot of the folks that are on SNAP are suffering from health-related issues,” Sosna told Calmful Living. “They’re suffering from either childhood obesity or malnourishment. You can work with middle-class and more affluent people on how to eat healthy—and I do—but you can also work with this huge population that needs the tools to just know, ‘If I buy 10 things at the grocery store, what are the healthy cheap 10 things that I should be buying?’ That’s what MicroGreens really is all about—it’s just purchasing power and how to use and stretch your dollar.”

Teaching the Kids

MicroGreens works through schoolchildren. “I really wanted to use kids to leverage that help at home, because kids are there to help,” Chef Sosna said.

“We work with sixth and seventh grade,” she explained. “It’s an eight-week program that we’re piloting for an hour a week. It’s conducted by me and five other volunteers who come to the class and donate their time to help teach the kids. The children are broken into teams of four, with sixteen per pilot program. We teach them recipe building and cooking skills so that each meal comes out to $3.50 per person for a family of four.

“As an example, this past Monday we did roasted chicken. The roasted chicken turns into chicken soup, and also into chicken salad. We’re teaching them that they can get 12 meals out of one chicken. It’s pretty effective when the kids see how far you can stretch a chicken.”

From Child to Parent to White House

This education is then passed from the children to the parents—and followed up by MicroGreens. “We send them home that day with food for a family of four,” Sosna continued. “Afterward, we go through the process of surveys—a beginning survey, mid-term survey, end-of-term survey, and then a six-month survey follow-up with these kids. Through that time we analyze the data of how this is affecting the kids: Are they eating more at home, cooking more at home, cooking more with their families, going to the grocery store more? Are their parents cooking more? Are they more aware?”

Sosna herself also has direct interaction with parents. “After every class, when the kids get picked up from school, I meet the moms, I meet the dads, and we talk,” she said. “We talk about what they struggle with at home. We offer tips, ways to eat better and healthy.”

Although the MicroGreens program has been in operation only a short while, it has attracted considerable notice—including that of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move program. “The fact that the folks from the White House called and said, ‘Hey, come tell us more about this program,’ tells me it is really hitting home to a lot of people,” said Sosna. “We’ll be meeting with them next week. We’re also hoping to launch in Philly and in Delaware next year, and just grow from there. It’s really exciting.”

A Growing Purpose

For Chef Sosna, the path that led her to provide access to healthy food for the underprivileged was a multistep process. It actually began when she was quite young.

“I had always been a mobile kid,” Sosna related. “I was always active. I was always on a sports team—athletics were definitely my first love. When I got to college, I was on the rowing team. As I was getting more and more into sports, I realized just how much food affected my body. Everything I was putting in had a different effect on my body, whether it got me better sleep or more strength.

“Then I lived in Italy in my junior year and saw a whole different side of food that I had never seen before in America. Food affects their culture—food is their culture. And so when I was there I decided I wanted to do something with food and people.

“That got me into the food world. I worked in every kind of food outlet, from catering to retail to fine dining. As I was learning the food side of it, I wanted to give back to my community more. I mean, feeding rich people is fun and all, but it can only take you so far.”

DC Central Kitchen

Through another chef for whom Sosna worked, she discovered DC Central Kitchen—an established nonprofit that works to educate and empower previously incarcerated and homeless individuals. It was through DC Central Kitchen that Sosna began working in school food.

“During that time, I unintentionally got into school food because I was the sous chef of Fresh Start, the catering company owned and operated by DC Central Kitchen,” Sosna said. “They promoted me to be the director of catering, and we had this one school that served 77 kids, all boys, in a not-so-great area of DC. It was a private school, and the food was okay—but we had a decent budget and I just said, ‘Why aren’t we cooking anything fresh? We have a good budget, so let’s do something with the food.'

“We started with basics. We got fresh lettuce in; we got fresh vegetables in. Next we began sourcing locally. We were simply building on it, and sure enough, a few bloggers and the media took notice. Then we had Jeff Mills, the Food Service Director of DC public schools, come in. He said, ‘I want this food on every plate, and every kid in DC eating this food.’

“By the time I left this past June, we were feeding over 4,000 or 5,000 kids every day in the DC public school sector. They now have 10 schools that they’re feeding. When I left, I left knowing that I had fed over a million healthy meals to kids in DC. It is by far the best thing I have ever done as a chef.”

It was while she was at DC Central Kitchen that Sosna started making the observations that led to her founding MicroGreens. “While I was at DC Central Kitchen, I saw that children were eating 90 percent of their meals at school. There was a lot of outreach, with chef demos and getting kids to talk about vegetables. But the question became, how do you help fill the education gap between the child and the parents, so that when the child comes home and asks for sweet potatoes, mom and dad know where you get the sweet potato and know how cook the sweet potato?

“At the same time nationally we were seeing the most-ever people in the United States applying for SNAP—almost 20 percent of Americans to this day are now on food stamps. So the next thing I really wanted to focus on was seeing the education gap shift, and to work with folks who are living within a specific budget, who have this specific economic constraint, and to use kids to leverage that help. So that’s where MicroGreens started.”

Social Enterprise

Today Sosna continues to expand MicroGreens, supporting it with her catering company, Allison Sosna Group Benefit, LLC. That company performs private chef services such as dinner parties and cocktail parties—but a percentage from every client billed goes to MicroGreens.

“We are currently going through the nonprofit IRS process, and we can’t apply for grants just yet because we haven’t finished that process,” Sosna concluded. “It’s a way for us to continue funding for MicroGreens in the interim.

“But everything that I work on that is technically under my legal name or with a partner will always give a percentage to MicroGreens. I’m a strong believer in social enterprise. I’m a strong believer in businesses having a responsibility to do good as they grow and as a part of their culture.”

To find out more about MicroGreens, please visit www.microgreensproject.org.

For more on Chef Alli Sosna, go to www.chefallisosna.com