Jan./Feb. 2014 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Jennifer Harrison
Photos by Matt Salvo
9-year-old app creator takes his healthy-eating message mobile
Nicolas Come, 9, pitches his business idea, a mobile application that promotes healthy eating, to hundreds of agriculture and technology investors during a conference in Sacramento last fall.
More online: Recipes and apps
Most people fear public speaking. Nine-year-old Nicolas Come seems to revel in it.
On an early Wednesday morning, he's behind a microphone speaking to hundreds of adults. Not only that, he's making them laugh, all while pitching his business.
This giant force—in the form of a 4-foot-tall third-grader and self-described picky eater—not only transformed his own eating habits, but is the founder and namesake behind Nicolas' Garden, a mobile application that promotes healthy eating "for kids, by kids."
To understand the force behind Nicolas' Garden, you have to understand Nicolas himself.
"It's 'Nico-la,' not 'Nico-las.' The 'S' is silent," he often corrects people. He's a confident, determined kid whose idea started in the garden.
Nicolas displays his mobile app, which is available for iPhones and Android smartphones.
Tale of a picky eater
"I was probably the pickiest eater on the planet," he said, a trait that mom Criss Come said he came by honestly: "His dad is picky; I'm picky."
Nicolas' dad, Stephane Come, grew up in the Swiss countryside with an appreciation for healthy food and the European practice of shopping for fresh ingredients each day. Desperate to get Nicolas to expand his palate, Stephane planted a garden at their Sacramento-area home so Nicolas and his brother Remy, 7, could learn where food comes from and perhaps be more eager to try the fruits—and vegetables—of their labor.
Nicolas launches his business idea at an urban community farm in Sacramento, where he got to see some of the crops being grown. Photo courtesy of Joanna Jullien
"We planted carrots, green beans, tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce, pumpkins, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, cantaloupe, yellow squash and zucchini," Nicolas said.
His parents were pleased with the results.
"Learning about the different fruits and vegetables and what each does for your body, and then going in the kitchen and helping Dad prepare the meals—I think the combination of those two made (Nicolas) willing to try new foods," his mom said.
After eating his dad's homemade tomato sauce, Nicolas started cooking—and learned to make the sauce as well as dishes such as ratatouille, a traditional French Provençal stewed vegetable dish.
The then-6-year-old couldn't keep his new love of healthy food and cooking to himself. He wanted to tell his friends—perhaps by writing a book.
High-tech healthy eating
An engineer by trade, Stephane instead suggested creating a website about healthy eating. Being a busy professional, he ended the conversation there. Nicolas, however, had embraced the idea and repeatedly asked his dad to help him.
Nicolas, in the hat, introduces his idea to President Obama while at the White House covering the first lady's 2013 recipe contest. Official White House photo by Pete Souza
"One day, I took his laptop and said, 'Dad, we are starting this now!'" the boy said.
Stephane sent Nicolas to the Hacker Lab in Sacramento where, as Nicolas put it, "computer coders teach non-computer coders how to code." It's a place where entrepreneurs introduce an idea to technical professionals such as designers and content developers who know how to turn a concept into something tangible.
"So I stood on a chair, pitched my idea to 100 people, got about five members on my team," the boy said—and Nicolas' Garden was born.
"Nicolas' Garden is a kid-centric and family-friendly, easy-to-use mobile recipe app 'for kids by kids,'" according to its website (www.nicolasgarden.com). The free app, geared for ages 5 to 15, is a place to look for, share and rate healthy recipes. Tap on a recipe and it shows preparation time, cook time and calorie count. Nicolas said he hopes to eventually add interactive search functions.
Other features include step-by-step visuals and the ability to create and add shopping lists with a recipe's ingredients to a user profile. Recipes are stamped "Nicolas' Approved" if they meet the criteria of www.ChooseMyPlate.gov, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommendations for healthy eating.
So passionate about healthy eating, Nicolas entered first lady Michelle Obama's Healthy Lunchtime Challenge recipe contest last spring. He didn't win, but after being interviewed on a local radio station about his quest, the station sent him to the White House as a reporter to cover the event.
Healthy dinners are a staple at the Come household. Nicolas, at right, with brother Remy, 7, father Stephane and mother Criss, enjoy a meal of ratatouille, baked chicken, rice and carrots.
He never met the first lady, but after waiting for hours behind a rope line, he did meet someone else: the president. Nicolas promptly pitched his idea.
"I talked really quickly about my app and handed him a business card," he said.
Nicolas' assertive personality and timely message have also caught the attention of both the media and the medical world.
"We got a lot more exposure than we were expecting," Stephane said. "The challenge is to keep (the app) up."
Fortunately, Nicolas rises to the task of promoting his passion. To attract financial backing to take the app to the next level, Nicolas—standing on a milk crate behind a lectern—spoke at a recent conference that emphasized agriculture and technological innovation.
Nicolas searches for a recipe on the Nicolas' Garden site. Recipes are broken down into preparation time, cook time and calorie count.
One of his biggest supporters was there: Dr. Richard Isaacs, physician-in-chief for Kaiser South Sacramento, who is interested in teaming with Nicolas' Garden locally to promote healthy eating habits for children and families.
"I think learning from a kid is more powerful," Isaacs said. "What Nicolas is trying to do is empower kids to eat well so they understand the basics of nutrition."
Nicolas poses with Dr. Richard Isaacs, physician-in-chief for Kaiser South Sacramento, who is interested in how a tool like Nicolas' Garden can help improve eating habits in children and families.
The partnership is in its infancy, as is much of the concept behind the Nicolas' Garden app. The ultimate goal is an app where kids are encouraged to eat healthy and exercise, as they earn points and badges for healthy choices and participation. Going-forward plans also include adding a map that would allow users to find healthy-eating events and farmers markets in their area.
"I haven't seen anything like this before," Isaacs said.
While Nicolas is adamant about healthy food, he realizes there's a balance—and his app reflects that. Scrolling through, a recipe posted by another kid catches his eye.
"Swiss chocolate mousse—it may not be the healthiest, but every once in a while you can have it," he said with the grin of an ordinary 9-year-old.
A growing appetite for apps
There's an ever-expanding world of mobile apps that make healthy eating easier—for both kids and adults. Here are just a few examples:
- Nicolas' Garden: This app is "all about making healthy cooking, eating and shopping fun and empowering for kids ages 5 to 15 while teaching them important independent living and lifestyle skills."
- Fooducate: Confused in the cracker aisle? Fooducate is a nutrition app that makes choosing healthy products easier. Users scan the barcode of a product, and the app gives it a letter grade based on attributes such as sugar content and processed ingredients. If a product receives an F, a healthy alternative is suggested.
- LaLa Lunchbox: This app makes a game out of packing lunch. It allows children to design and plan their own lunch box meals and contains a food library where kids swipe their choices into a lunch box based on the concept of well-balanced meals.
- Harvest: If you're ever standing in the produce section trying to find the ripest avocado or freshest orange, this app can help. Harvest shows what produce is in season in your area and how to determine if that fruit or vegetable is ripe. The app also offers storage tips and more.