With Strong Harris Ties, Pilot Light Makes a Difference in Childhood Nutrition

pilot light

Everyone needs to eat, but how many of us are thoughtful about what we put into our bodies?

For Alexandra DeSorbo-Quinn, executive director of the non-profit Pilot Light, food education is key to changing lives. Pilot Light helps children make healthier choices by connecting the lessons they learn in their classrooms to the foods they eat at school, at home, and in their communities. 

“Pilot Light was founded by a group of chefs and teachers who really believe that students need to learn about food in schools,” DeSorbo-Quinn said. “And we don’t just mean learning about food preparation or cooking, but really learning about food holistically so it can drive better decision making, and ultimately can lead to students advocating on behalf of themselves and their communities.”

This means teaching kids about food systems as a whole, how these systems are set up to drive their food choices, and how they can ask the right questions and start making food choices that benefit them and their communities.

This past year, Pilot Light worked with about 65 K-12 classrooms in 15 Chicago Public Schools, working in direct partnership with teachers to integrate food education into their curriculum. But approaching each school or each classroom one by one is a laborious process. DeSorbo-Quinn realized the best way to get Pilot Light’s unique brand of food education in schools throughout the state was through policy.

Policy isn’t just matters of war or peace, or divisive political topics. Sometimes it’s as simple as organizing schools to be thoughtful about how they teach kids about food and building a case for curriculum changes.

Alexandra DeSorbo-Quinn pilot lightAs a partner of the Community Programs Accelerator at the University of Chicago, DeSorbo-Quinn was put in touch with the Harris School of Public Policy’s Harris Policy Labs, a set of elective courses in which teams of second-year Harris students apply their education to real-time public policy challenges facing client organizations, under the guidance of Harris faculty. Students who complete the program are better-prepared policy professionals with a competitive advantage in the job market.

“We presented to Harris, saying we really need an advocacy plan for Pilot Light,” DeSorbo-Quinn said. “They came back to us, and we were very fortunate that Harris Policy Labs took this on as a project.”

This isn’t the first connection that Pilot Light has made with Harris. In 2017 and 2018, Pilot Light worked with Harris to create food education standards for teachers. And DeSorbo-Quinn was also a 2018 Fellow of Harris’ Civic Leadership Academy, which brings together practitioners from Chicago and Cook County government and nonprofits to learn more about leadership. So working with Harris students on a strategy for getting this curriculum into schools at the policy level felt like a natural next step in the Pilot Light-Harris relationship.

“We had four grad students on it, and they were just tremendous,” DeSorbo-Quinn said. “They were so smart, so curious. They treated Pilot Light like a client. It was like we’d hired a group of consultants to lead us to this process. It was that level of support and partnership.”

One of those Harris students, Julia Whiting MPP’19, said the Policy Labs initiative was one of the main draws to the Harris Public Policy program. And since she has focused on food policy from the time she was an undergraduate student, working with Pilot Light seemed like a perfect fit.

Whiting and her three teammates began by completing an inventory of where Pilot Light was in that moment by collecting data from the program. They looked at Pilot Light’s standards and curriculum, and from there, they began examining the food education environment in Illinois, as well as seeking out other education policies that could serve as a model. Then they crafted recommendations and a list of legislators and policy makers.

“What it’s done for Pilot Light is we now have these wonderful recommendations on next steps,” DeSorbo-Quinn said. “Since then, our team has taken it and looped back with UChicago’s Community Programs Accelerator. We made a list of immediate next steps, and a next step we’re especially excited about is how we work with partners to come together, build a coalition, and pursue this goal of making food education a field of education that is desired by teachers, schools, parents, and students.”

Whiting said working with Pilot Light was an eye-opener for her, and her experience will come in handy as she pursues a career in food policy.

“This helped me see first-hand some of the challenges facing boots-on-the-ground organizations who are actually doing this work,” she said. “In guiding an organization through a policymaking process, not only did I solidify my understanding of how policies are developed, but it’s also a window into how policy affects people’s lives.”

Whiting said the experience of working on a Policy Lab project has set her and her teammates up to better understand what a degree in public policy can mean for their careers.

“This experience really helped highlight the range of what’s possible with an MPP degree,” Whiting said. “It’s important to do qualitative as well as quantitative work, and to understand its time and place and importance. What we learned is applicable even if I don’t have a giant data set to analyze. You can do a lot of different things and have a huge impact.”

By Jessica Cabe

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