By scott scanlon // Refresh editor
Executive chef MaryRuth Rera has spent the last decade cooking first for Ralph Lauren and later for children in the third poorest city in America.
All of them, in her eyes, deserve access to healthy food.
“If you won’t eat something, why would you think a kid’s going to want it?” asked Rera, who in January 2010 started to revamp the kitchen at Westminster Community Charter School in Buffalo to focus on fresh, whole, simple foods made from scratch.
This fall, Nardin Academy took a similar tack, sacking an outside vendor that ran its cafeteria and replacing it with its own cooking staff, whose work is overseen by a professional chef and national scratch food consultant.
A growing number of public and private schools across the U.S. are taking a look at this new model, but administrative doubters have slowed the trend, lamented the Nardin consultant, Greg Christian, who was in town this week to see how things are going in what the school now calls its “dining hall.”
In most schools, Christian said, food is an afterthought: “Most district budget managers will say, ‘We’re hitting our numbers, no one’s dying and we feed the kids on time.’ ” But he and Rera maintain a lack of interest in truly healthy eating imperils children, who many nutrition experts believe will be the first generation in U.S. history to have a life span shorter than their parents.
The duo, along with several folks at Nardin, also offered some tips to schools – and parents – who want to take a closer look at the ingredients that go into a healthier school food model:
1. Employee buy-in: Kitchen staff and school leaders must have the resolve to make healthy food a priority.
Rera said she arrived at Westminster to a kitchen staff unwilling to change the food-making model, and replaced workers with people like her who have a passion to cook from scratch with fresh proteins, fruits and vegetables.
“You can find ways to get your food at reasonable costs,” she said, “but it takes labor to make the food … and you can’t take your average lunch lady who’s used to a lot of processed food and opening cans and expect them to have the same enthusiasm when they’re told now they have to chop some carrots and chickens.”
At Nardin, administrators committed to spend more time, and money. “Why wouldn’t you want to make everything align so beautifully in the kitchen that you do all day long?” said Leslie Johnson, vice president of finance and operations, and one of the drivers behind the change.
2. Involved students and parents: This year’s dining switch at Nardin bubbled down as a whisper from administrators, and caught fire with parents, who helped sell the idea to their children. The process included surveys, focus groups and strategy sessions last school year to lay the groundwork for this year’s change.
“Food’s important. It’s fuel for our children. We wanted better food for our children,” said Brigid Doherty, chair of the board of trustees and graduate of the Nardin class of 1992.
Rera routinely does classroom tastings at Westminster, whipping up recipes for students that the kitchen staff may add to the menu. “The babies are the best,” she said. “Kindergarten through second grade, they love everything.”
More success comes with this sort of food introduction “rather than in the cafeteria itself,” said Rera, and the practice results in less waste in the lunchroom.
3. Good taste is key: John Rooney, a Nardin seventh-grader, and Emily Ciocca, a sophomore, were among the student taste testers who last year sampled menu prospects for the transition to this year’s new dining hall.
Their school lunches last year generally included pizza, fries, chips, cookies and juice. This year, it’s homemade soup, salads, wraps and water poured from pitchers instead of hawked in plastic bottles.
“It’s healthier,” said Emily, “and it’s delicious.”
Among the favorites at Westminster are spaghetti with homemade meatballs, dishes made with organic whole chickens and spinach salad with homemade dressings. Another favorite, according to Rera: “Vegetables that are roasted with olive oil and Parmesan and salt and pepper, rather than steamed to a mushiness nobody would ever want to touch…
“If it tastes good,” she said, “the kids will eat it.”
4. Food is learning: Both schools have implemented healthy eating strategies outside their school dining areas. Westminster staff and students this week started harvesting lettuce from the school’s new greens garden, and plans are in the works for an expanded garden next year. Nardin plans a spring garden, too, and Christian has written a three-part book series on nutrition that will be used in various classrooms. Math students will help track food use to reduce waste, and field trips to food-related sites in the region also are planned.
5. Watch the budget: Nardin is blessed to have parents of means, both financial and professional, who have children enrolled at the school.
This doesn’t mean Nardin is ignoring ways to offer a healthy lunch as affordably as possible. The kitchen staff has reduced portion sizes and created ways to put leftover food into future dishes. Christian, along with two student environmental groups, also helped set up a program in which all plates, cups, dishes and silverware are either reused or recycled. Nothing goes in the garbage; instead, food waste is shipped off to a compost site in Lancaster. “It takes some getting used to,” said John, the seventh-grader, “because we don’t do it at home or anywhere else.”
Westminster has M&T Bank to help bridge food service deficits, which have fallen considerably as the public charter school improves its scratch-cooking model. “My first and foremost thought is, What’s right for kids? Not what’s right for the bottom line,” Rera said. “Nobody wants to run in the red, but you pay the price later with health care costs and unhealthy children who are huge.”
6. Think local: “It isn’t just about Nardin eating healthy,” but also supporting the local economy, said Johnson, the school VP. Both schools do their best to stay close to home for as much food as possible, and Nardin has spent considerable effort looking for local seasonal foods. A whiteboard in the dining hall lists what upstate businesses have a role in the menu. This week, it included an Elma beekeeper, Youngstown apple grower and Eden vegetable farmer. Westminster orders organic fresh chickens from Plainville Farms outside Syracuse that are raised without antibiotics or steroids.
7. Do something: Schools and districts that decide feeding children is a priority may not be able to afford wholesale changes like the ones made at Westminster and Nardin, but they can start somewhere, Rera said. Maybe it’s with a school garden, or a meatless Monday, or adding more fresh, local items to a cafeteria salad bar.
“It took us 25 years as a nation to get so unhealthy,” she said. “It’s going to take a while to get us healthy again.
“You have to deal with a lot of people who are going to kick and scream along the way – both children and adults – but you have to know it’s going to be worth the effort in the long run. However warm and fuzzy it might sound, kids are the future, and if our future is kids who are obese and sick, what does that say for us?”