Sunflower Kids Wins Grand Prize at JWU’s Future Food All-Stars Challenge

Can school lunches be reformed from the ground up? JWU Providence students Kayce Jernagan ’22 and Julianne Surrette ‘21 have a vision for making lunches healthy, affordable, and — yes — fun. Their concept for Sunflower Kids, a nutrient-dense, single-serving meal plan for school-aged children, won the $10,000 top prize at JWU Providence’s inaugural Future Food All-Stars Challenge. The semester-long competition was hosted by the university’s Larry Friedman Center for Entrepreneurship, College of Food Innovation & Technology (CFIT), and JWU’s Food Entrepreneur in Residence, Tyler Florence '94, '04 Hon.

For Jernagan, a Food & Beverage Entrepreneurship major who graduated in December, and Surrette, a Culinary Science and Product Development major, Sunflower Kids is a “passion project” sparked by their own experiences growing up.

“A lot of kids struggle to get access to the healthy foods they need to grow big and strong.”

“Sunflower Kids is really important to us because it gives kids the opportunity to get the full nutrients they need to continue their day, as well as being adaptable for allergies and dietary restrictions — which I did not get when I was in school,” explains Surrette. For Jernagan, “My inspiration for this project comes from the community that I was raised in, which is very much a food desert. And a lot of kids struggle to get access to the healthy foods they need to grow big and strong.” “So, our product fills the holes in both those markets, and allows any child that can afford $25 a week — which is $5 more than a regular school lunch,” notes Surrette.

‘Like a Healthier Lunchables’

Future Food All-Stars packaging examples for Hemply Rooted (left) and Sunflower Kids (right)During their research phase, the duo were shocked to discover that roughly 42% of parents or guardians are not confident their children are eating healthy meals at school.

In an introduction to their concept documentation, they explain their hope that Sunflower Kids, with its mix of familiar and stealth-health foods packed with servings of vegetables, will help change how kids eat: “Children will always choose the cookie over the carrots. But if given a stiffer structure like with our meal trays, they can have the appropriate amount of both nutritious foods and a treat.”

Like a healthier version of Lunchables, Sunflower Kids meals “will utilize fresh fruits and vegetables in a fun and exciting way to appeal to even the pickiest eaters.” The concept can also accommodate dietary or allergy restrictions important, given that roughly 8% of scholar-aged children have dietary limitations of some kind.

Showtime for the Finalists

The competition began in last fall, when eight student teams began a semester-long entrepreneurial journey; Chef Florence served as their primary mentor. Teams were tasked with identifying a core business opportunity, develop a business model and product plan, and prepare for the opportunity to pitch their ideas to established investors. As Florence noted at Challenge’s kickoff, “I want to see the roots of a fantastic concept. … I want to develop your muscle memory to be an entrepreneur.”

After months of virtual and in-person meetings, 3 finalist teams were chosen. During a live event in December, they pitched their business ideas to a panel of judges, including Chef Florence (appearing virtually via Zoom); Michael Rypka ’96, Torchy’s Tacos founder; Dean Jason R. Evans, Ph.D., of CFIT; and Dean Mary Meixell, Ph.D., of the College of Business.

Each team was allotted ten minutes to outline their ventures before taking questions from the judges. In addition to Sunflower Kids, the following concepts were presented:

  • Wonderland, an indoor skate park and fast-casual restaurant (Zacharie Curry ’23)
  • Hemply Rooted, a hemp-infused condiment company (Maya Alderman ’23, Asia Vo ’23 and Jessica Hess ’23)

While Sunflower Kids walked away with the grand prize, all 3 teams received high remarks and invaluable feedback from the panel of judges.

“It was really amazing to get to spend time with so many bright minds with brilliant concepts!”

‘A Perfect End to 4 Years at JWU’

When asked to sum up her favorite part of the competition, Jernagan explains, “It’s hard to pick. It was incredible to be able to work so closely with someone I’ve become great friends with over the past 3 years at JWU. Utilizing our respective skillsets and being able to bounce our thoughts and ideas off of each other was vital to the success of Sunflower Kids.

“I also loved getting to know all of our competitors and hearing their ideas each week … It was really amazing to get to spend time with so many bright minds with brilliant concepts!”

For Surrette, the challenge was “the perfect end” to her 4 years at JWU: “From getting to work directly with Food Network chef and entrepreneur Tyler Florence to getting a chance to put our passions to work for a real goal, it was an amazing experience!”

While both team members will be moving on to internships and other job opportunities, they hope to pursue Sunflower Kids. Notes Jernagan, “It’s something that could really change so many kids’ lives.”

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The winning Future Food All-Stars team, Sunflower Kids, with the judges

Chef Tyler FlorenceTyler Florence, the university’s first Food Entrepreneur in Residence, talks to the final 3 teams during the Future Food All-Stars finale.