On Friday, June 4th we joined hundreds of chefs, our culinary leaders in white, and school officials who all flocked to DC to participate in a historic day. Michelle Obamaís Letís Move campaign began with a garden planted on the South Lawn and has expanded in a way that nobody could have anticipated. Foodservice professionals from around the country had a chance to hear first hand from the First Lady how big an impact they could really make.
Leading up to her speech a number of chefs partnered with school representatives across the country and came to talk about what a difference chefs can make. Nora Robia of Murch Elementary began with opening remarks that spoke to the extraordinary changes brought about by Chef Todd Gray of Equinox when he first partnered with the DC public school system. Robia underlined the fact that Chef Gray had worked through the school administration to find out what children were actually eating. By planting a garden and watching it grow food and school lunches took on a whole new significance.
Chef Gray has been a passionate supporter of Murch Elementary since his son began attending, and he helped the audience of chefs understand that a simple act like inviting children into the kitchen or encouraging them to plant gardens is no small thing. Such activities go beyond feeding their bodies, it feeds their minds as teachers incorporate the garden into lessons on seed germination in earth science classes, and cooking into a math class. He called for chefs to “share their experience with the next generation of diners.” Gray called being a community leader by participating at Murch one of the “most rewarding aspects of twenty-something years as a chef.”
First Lady Michelle Obama began her inspiring call to action by speaking about how Gray's example of partnership was one she hoped to see replicated across the country. She credited White House Chef Sam Kass as her “partner in crime” in promoting nutrition in schools and helping to shape the Let’s Move initiative. Never before has such a high-ranking public figure underlined how important chefs really are.
Who better to bring these important facts to the forefront of the nation’s awareness than First Lady Obama: nearly a third of the kids in America are overweight or obese and at risk of developing obesity-related diseases, costing taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars a year to treat. This paints a terrifying future for our children, and in order to avoid that, both Obama and Kass have brought the Let’s Move movement to the forefront with the goal of solving the problem of childhood obesity.
We often hear about Americans making the wrong choices, and how each bite is a choice—salad instead of French fries, yogurt instead of ice cream and cake. But what is often overlooked is that many Americans simply don’t have access to the foods they need to make the right choices. This is why chefs play such an important role—school lunches are the majority of many of the children's calories—so healthy school meals have the ability to point America in a healthier direction.
As any DC Top Chef viewer will tell you, $2.68 is allotted per school meal prepared. With a mere $1.25 going to food itself, and often less in some school districts, that secret weapon in every chef’s arsenal will need to be resourcefulness. The proposed Childhood Nutrition Bill moving through Congress as we speak with support from all sides so if the over 30 million children in school lunch and break programs are affected the potential in terms of childhood development and cognitive development is astounding.
One thing was clear from all speakers though—the government will not wave a magic wand and make it all better. This will take many players. Chefs must team with parents, teachers, community leaders, food manufacturers and beyond to bring about these changes. She warned against the misguided tendency of chefs to plough through school kitchens in an attempt at change. Her shout-out to hard-working school food service professionals emphasized a point that can be overlooked—they can and will serve as key collaborators in bringing about a real change in school lunch programs, as they know where the potential areas of change lie.
We’ve all heard of cooking in school kitchens to improve lunches. But some of the more imaginative ideas that really inspired us went beyond that simple but effective act. Practicing cooking demonstrations to teach kids how to prepare meals when they leave school for the day, and working with teachers to bring food into the classroom and work it into the lesson program are both, for example. Working with kids to create a cooking club for eager young chefs, and salad parties for parents are other great ways to get involved. The final goal? To have a chef in every school in the nation. Finally, under the direction of Kass, the First Lady of the United States got down on her hands and knees in the White House garden and helped visiting kids harvest cauliflower and fennel with the chefs.
Earlier that day at the JW Marriott Hotel, chefs and school officials alike gathered to hear about some of the experience their peers had in an effort to feed our kids partnering with Share Our Strength. Kass defined a healthy school lunch is a reachable goal to improve the health of our children. “The First Lady is counting on you to make food fun, healthy, and delicious,” he urged.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan took the podium next and called for action to solve the dual problem devastating low and middle income families in the US: obesity and hunger. Duncan pointed out that if every one of the 500 or 600 chefs gathered at the hotel found 10 more chefs a huge step would be taken to chip away at the status quo. A whopping 1.2 million children leave school every year for the streets, an unsustainable figure.
Janet Poppendieck, Professor of Sociology at Hunger College, City University of New York and author of Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, helped chefs understand the motivations of school food service and spoke to the challenges and rewards an enthusiastic chef can reap when volunteering. Time, food safety, and money are the biggest obstacles in bringing about change. Other difficulties lie in overwhelmed school principals hesitant to take on extra administrative work and teachers under pressure to prepare students for standardized tests. But she emphasized that patience is key, and that real change is possible with time.
A panel of chef volunteers and school administrators then dished on successful collaborations and gave practical advice to chefs just getting started. Chef Andrew Nowak, a volunteer at Steele Elementary in Denver, CO, accompanied by Gene Boyer, Principal of Steele Elementary discussed working within the limitations of the equipment, staff and parents to teach children what foods are healthy. Chef Nowak helped build a greenhouse and harness chef involvement in Slow Food to plant the seeds for change. As there are hundreds of Slow Food chapters throughout the country, Nowak pointed out, the opportunities to participate are endless.
Chef Bill Telepan, volunteer in New York City public schools, and Jorge Callazo, Executive Chef of New York City schools added that perseverance would be vital in bringing about change that the school would be able to sustain. Telepan confessed that there was a time when he gave way to the impression that “nobody gives a shit” when change came slower than he liked, but that frustration can be overcome. He asked the audience to seriously consider the value of parents and school service people backing chef partners, and being realistic about the equipment and staff you have to work with. Chef Collazo urged the SOS audience members to think about the advantages of the same collaboration that he has for every school district, particularly with an eye to consistency.
Chef April Neujean was a former volunteer and current Food and Nutrition Services Coordinator for the Edible Schoolyard New Orleans at Samuel J. Green Charter School. Her slogan “it doesn’t count if they don’t swallow” may not catch on in prudish schools, but she got her point across—kids need to actually eat healthy food, it’s not enough to supply it. Kids need to be engaged in order to want to eat healthy foods. Some of the most creative ideas we heard for change were tasting parties for children to introduce them to unfamiliar produce, mock Iron Chef competitions where kids taste what is cooked, and market-to-table luncheons with parents. Perhaps most importantly Neujean underlined how special a chef can be in the eyes of a child and how “putting on your chef coat is like putting on a superhero costume.” Another useful titbit? “Always feed your teachers!”
Ellen Teller, Director of Government Affairs at the Food Research and Action Center defined food as “the carrot to get kids in the door” and away from the drugs, gang recruitment and teen pregnancy that are rife in those hours after school between 3pm and 7pm. A child nutrition reauthorization act would serve kids meals during those vital summer months when demand rises. And again, kids’ participation makes all the difference as the unit cost at each school goes down the more meals are sold. Chefs have the potential to be “the secret ingredient,” said Teller.
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