A few years ago, math teacher George A. Caesar wondered why his students seemed low on energy, grumpy and making silly mistakes on their lessons. A colleague at his Liberty City high school suggested they were hungry.
“I thought of myself when I’m hungry, I’m barely functioning, I’m not a nice person. I’m definitely not high performing the way I want to be,” Caesar said.
So the next day Caesar asked his class of 30 how many had breakfast that morning, and only four raised their hands. And once he started digging deeper, he learned that breakfast was often donuts, chips or McDonald’s — healthy options just weren’t accessible in their neighborhoods.
What can we do about that? he thought. Caesar enjoys nutritional, all-natural smoothies for breakfast — “mine have everything healthy in there, spinach, kale, walnuts, almonds, oatmeal.” But for him the light bulb really turned on when one day a student commandeered his healthy smoothie — and liked it. Caesar realized that smoothies not only can provide nutrient-dense meals to improve brain function and help fight food insecurity but kids will drink them — particularly if they include flavors they favor, like mango or pineapple.
“We set out to meet our students where they are and serve them something that they want, to help them not just in their lives but also to be able to take advantage of what public education is supposed to be — an equalizer,” said Caesar, who has been a teacher for seven years, starting out in Teach for America.
Caesar founded Smoothies 4 Students in 2018. Before the pandemic, Caesar was working through affiliated organizations to fund and distribute smoothies to students in Miami Northwestern. It was going well — but then the pandemic shut that down.
With students now at home, Caesar posted a smoothie request form online and requests poured in — from Miami Gardens to Homestead. “I was driving all over Miami, which was not very efficient, but we needed to continue to meet students where they were.”
‘Lifelong changes in habits’
That delivery model morphed into one where Smoothies 4 Students began creating educational opportunities for children at summer camps or by working with community organizations such as Big Ideas, Girls of Transformation, Village Free(dge) and Mino Learning Collaborative, allowing Smoothies 4 Students to feed more children at one time. “We teach them about the different steps that they can take to eat healthy and then we also have smoothies for the students,” said Caesar.
That work has continued. On a recent Saturday, Caesar was handing out smoothies at Village Free(dge), which was founded in the height of the pandemic and provides community refrigerators and food pantries for the hungry in underserved communities.
“The children know to come on Saturday for the smoothies, and the adults enjoy the cool, healthy drinks as well,” Said Sherina Jones, founder of Village Free(dge). “Anytime we have events, George is here and educating them about the smoothies and always giving out [recipe] cards so they can imitate something similar at home.”
Adds Caesar, “As we’ve pivoted, we realized it’s all about synergy in working with organizations that are aligned in mission but also aligned with the kids that we serve.”
Now Smoothies 4 Students is expanding with its Nutrition Change Agent Program. “We want to truly empower lifelong changes in habits that are going to help health outcomes.”
For this program, Smoothies 4 Students has assembled an initial group of 50 students and their families. The nonprofit provides the households with blenders and delivers smoothie packs regularly to the families, with all the pre-measured ingredients needed plus recipes. The families can take part in health and wellness programs, and Smoothies 4 Students plans to track its impact on students’ academic performance and wellness over time and provide a report on all it learned, Caesar said. “We’re rolling out, and just trying to create a more expansive, but also holistic opportunity for students to take ownership to eat healthy, and then to also bring that into the household.”
The smoothies are made in a commercial kitchen or a converted school bus-turned-food truck so smoothie production can pop up where needed. Smoothies 4 Students has no paid staff, but has dozens of “amazing volunteers,” Caesar said. The volunteers, which include high school students, are part of teams that do business development, grant writing, blog writing, marketing and social media. They include dietitians who design new recipes and business consultants, too.
Caesar is part of the 5-month-long Leadership Lab by social impact accelerator Radical Partners, said its executive director, Joan M Godoy. “George is such a powerhouse. He’s a super-smart teacher, bold enough to start something that matters for his students, and kind enough to travel around the city promoting healthy habits,” she said. “He’s also willing to learn and do whatever it takes to scale his impact.”
What’s next? More of that “whatever it takes.”
“My dream is to have students essentially working most aspects of this organization, from food production to management to delivery. They’re this talented base of amazingly creative and hardworking young people who just haven’t been given an opportunity,” said Caesar, who eventually wants to offer paid positions to students and recent graduates. “Imagine the power of having graduating seniors providing their little brothers and sisters and their friends with the healthy breakfasts and just what that means — the power of a community that takes care of itself. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
How to help
Smoothies 4 Students
Email: [email protected]
To donate to Smoothies 4 Students, click on the “Donate” tab in the center of their website.