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obesity part I





Part II - A Model that Works

This is the second article in the StarChefs Child Obesity/School Lunch series.

by Amy Tarr and Pia daSilva

Can you imagine your child sitting down for lunch at school one day and eating a cafeteria meal on a par with a fine restaurant? Believe it or not, the idea isn’t so outlandish. Last summer we sat down for lunch at the Ross School in East Hampton, New York to interview Ann Cooper, the school’s former Executive Chef who, over the last five years, built a nutrition program for students based on the use of organic, regional, seasonal and sustainable food. Chef Ann proved to us that for a reasonable cost, kids could eat well in school and develop healthy eating habits to last a lifetime.

Set amid an idyllic farming and resort community on the eastern end of Long Island, the Ross School is a private school for students in 5th through 12th grades. Since its inception 11 years ago, the school has emphasized the importance of educating the whole person: mind, body and spirit.

At the Ross School, food plays an integral part in the curriculum. A registered dietician grades students on what they put on their plates in an effort to teach them how to make good food choices. Nutrition is taught in every grade along with food history, which is incorporated into social studies classes. During a unit on China, the kitchen crew at the school prepares a regional Chinese meal for students. When the middle-schoolers study India and the spice trade, a chef goes into their classrooms to conduct a spice tasting. What’s more, every student works with local farmers learning how to make compost, plant seeds and harvest produce. And, students are required to cook in order to graduate. [more]



“I 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.

All 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 regarded restaurants.

Before 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 it.”

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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   Published: February 2005