had a blank slate to work with, and so this is what I dreamed up,”
Cooper said. “As far as I’m concerned, if you could
feed kids in the best possible fashion, it would include teaching
them about sustainable food, teaching them about nutrition and about
making good choices. So that’s what we do.”
Cooper mastered many of the principles of sustainability while writing
Bitter Harvest, a book that explores the role of agribusiness in
controlling and altering our food supply, as well as the use of
pesticides, hormones and bioengineering in agriculture.
The dining room at the Ross School,
located on the second floor of the Wellness Center, is an experience
in serenity, with huge picture windows providing expansive views
of the surrounding woodlands. Well-crafted tables and chairs are
arranged for students and teachers to dine together. They eat on
real plates, drink out of real glasses, and use real silverware.
Everyone is required to bus their own dishes and separate items
for recycling and composting.
students, faculty and staff at the Ross School are served breakfast
and lunch during the week, amounting to more than 1,000 meals a
day. At breakfast, offerings include cottage cheese, yogurt, a cold
and hot cereal, eggs, toast, fruit smoothies and fresh fruit. For
lunch there's a soup of the day, fresh fruit, all-natural cold cuts
and breads, composed salads and a salad bar, two hot entrees (one
animal protein and one not), cooked fresh vegetables and a dessert.
Fruit is also available in every building on campus for students
to snack on throughout the day, along with shelf stable items like
granola bars and raisins for the older kids.
The day we dined at the school,
the menu consisted of Pea Shoot and Shiitake Salad, Grilled Chicken,
Bow Tie Pasta with Pea Shoots and Snap Peas, Grilled Asparagus,
Roasted Baby Potatoes and Homemade Peach Frozen Yogurt with Alpine
Strawberries. The quality of the produce was impeccable, and the
preparation rivaled that of some of New York City’s most well
Chef Cooper arrived at the Ross School five years ago, students
ate typical lunch fare like pizza and hot dogs. It was a struggle
getting them to accept the new menu, with kid favorites like white
bread and American cheese nowhere to be found. Slowly but surely,
the students came around and discovered their palates were more
sophisticated than they thought.
By now you’re surely thinking that the cost of feeding these
privileged private school students must be astronomical, and that
such a program could only exist in the most elite schools in our
nation. Think again.
The cost of breakfast, lunch and
snacks at the Ross School is $4 per student per day, about $3 of
which is for lunch. These costs exclude payroll for the kitchen
staff. “A typical school spends somewhere between $2 and $3
per child for lunch, but that’s inclusive of payroll. Any
school in America can switch to a more sustainable model nutritionally,
without spending significantly more money,” said Cooper.
“There needs to be a shift
in the paradigm. I mean, as adults, we don’t go out to lunch
for $2. You can’t pack a lunch for $2. You could do it, but
a healthy, nutritious lunch, I would say, is pushing the envelope,”
said Cooper. “How we could believe that a school could provide
that for kids is ridiculous. We really have to understand that we
have to put more money into the school lunch system.”
Cooper explained that it costs
$6,000 to feed a single child from pre-school through the time he
graduates 12th grade. The CDC (Center for Disease Control) says
it costs about $175,000 per adult to treat them for diet-related
diseases from the time they’re 30 years on. “So we’re
spending $6,000 to make kids sick and then $175,000 to try and fix
Investing money into school food
programs is critical to preventing diet-related health problems
down the line. Changing the food being served at schools is only
part of the solution. First, kids have to change their eating habits
and choose foods that are good for them. By growing and cooking
their food and studying food history in class, children naturally
become more interested in what they are eating and are thus more
willing to try it.
The food program at the Ross School
is just one example of what can be done when everyone involved –
school administrators, cafeteria workers, teachers, parents, and
students – works together to improve the conditions at their
school. Just because the Ross School is a private institution in
the tony Hamptons doesn’t mean that its school lunch program
is out of reach for average public schools around the country. By
adhering to Chef Cooper’s simple principles of serving regional,
organic, seasonal, sustainable foods, any school can incorporate
more healthy items into its lunch menu. Small steps lead to great
strides, but you have to start somewhere.
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