I have a confession. Whenever I read that some big-name restaurant chef is going to get involved in the world of school food, I know I should be supportive of his efforts – but I secretly want to roll my eyes.
It’s not that I doubt the chef’s sincere desire to help, and it’s not that school food doesn’t need fixing. But I’ve often wondered if the skills acquired in a high-end restaurant kitchen have much to do with the problems faced by school food departments: extremely tight budgets (just a dollar per meal for food), reams of federal regulations, often seriously deficient infrastructure, and a notoriously fickle and hard-to-please clientele.
Indeed, sometimes restaurant chefs’ main contributions to schools are cooking demos that have no real relationship to what’s going in the cafeteria, which I’m sure are fun and inspiring for kids, but hardly “fix” the system. And, too, I can’t help but feel that the whole concept of “chefs in schools” is a little disrespectful to school food workers. After all, these dedicated men and women work hard every day, with no fanfare, low pay and little gratitude, and they’ll continue to do so long after the big-name chef gets his 15 minutes of fame and moves on to other ventures.
So even though I had vaguely heard good things about Wellness in the Schools (WITS), a chef-driven program working to improve the food served in New York City public schools, I didn’t know much about it; I figured it was just one more case of fancy chefs “doing good” but not really changing the status quo. But then last week I had a chance to talk to WITS co-founder and Executive Director, Nancy Easton, as well as the program’s Executive Chef, Bill Telepan, to better understand the program and its impact.
And let me tell you, people – I’ve been schooled.
The key difference between WITS and some other chef-led efforts is that it’s a remarkably cooperative venture between the organization and the New York City Department of Education (DOE), which oversees the city’s school food operations. WITS was careful not to approach DOE with a “we know better” attitude, while DOE, in the words of Executive Director Easton, was “secure and completely open” in its embrace of WITS, whose vision for improved school food very much matched DOE’s longterm goals.
So WITS and DOE worked together to develop what’s called the Alternative Menu, which features more scratch-cooked items, fewer processed foods and more vegetarian entrees than the standard menu. Chocolate milk is dropped, a salad bar is added and the dressing for the salad bar is homemade. The menu is drawn from the exact same food procurement list used by the entire district, meets all federal requirements and the food itself is no more costly than the regular fare.
Of course, at this point, savvy readers will ask: OK, but doesn’t scratch-cooked food require more skilled labor, which itself costs more money?
Yes, and that’s where WITS’s team of chefs come in. The organization hires recent culinary school graduates who essentially embed themselves in participating schools for three years to teach them how to prepare the Alternative Menu. During the first year of the program, WITS chefs work side-by-side with cafeteria workers on a full-time basis, five days a week, five hours a day. In the second year of implementation, WITS chefs scale back their time on-site, and by the third year their involvement is more supervisory.
Amazingly, according to the WITS team, by the time the organization’s chef leaves, schools are fully able to prepare the Alternative Menu themselves – with no additional labor required. When I expressed surprise at this outcome, Easton asked me rhetorically, “Why even do this work, if you’re not going to make systemic change?” Indeed, WITS is so committed to keeping its improvements in place that if a WITS-trained staff member leaves a particular school after the three-year program, WITS will come back to train his or her replacement, free of charge.
But what about infrastructure? After all, not all schools have full kitchens in which to prepare scratch-cooked food. “We really try to design recipes for the least common denominator,” says Chef Telepan. “If a school only has a convection oven, then we teach them how to make pasta in the oven.” He described one New York City school that had ten burners – far more than many schools – but not a single pot. “So we just had to make chili in the convection oven,” he laughed. “We try hard not to let facilities issues become a barrier.”
But improving a school’s cafeteria menu is just one part of the WITS program. During the three-year period, the school also gets help with its physical fitness offerings and school wellness programs, and is provided with frequent food tastings, nutrition education and cooking lessons for students. Even the snacks offered at parent-teacher conferences undergo a healthy makeover while WITS is working with a school. And yes, there are celebrity chefs, too. Each school is assigned a chef from a leading New York City restaurant who visits several times a year for “WITS Cafe Days” to create buzz around the program. But in this case, when the celebrity chef does a cooking demo, it’s directly tied to the food being served in the cafeteria to bolster interest in and acceptance of those healthier meals.
WITS is currently working with 75 schools around New York City, and it specifically seeks out those serving economically underprivileged populations. If fewer than 60 percent of a school’s kids qualify for free or reduced price lunch, the school is asked to pay for the program in full ($40,000 in year one, $25,000 in year two and $17,000 in year three.) But even schools in more impoverished areas are asked to contribute whatever they can toward the program – “so they have some skin in the game,” says Easton – and the rest is covered by WITS’ generous donors.
Meanwhile, the demand for WITS training and the Alternative Menu continues to grow. Because there’s currently a waiting list of 30 interested schools, the organization is trying out some new approaches, such as an intensive training “boot camp” which will debut this summer, and some two-day training summits scheduled for next year. These programs offer “a much lighter touch” than the standard three-year training, says Easton, but they have the advantage of reaching many more schools over a shorter period of time. WITS is also set to expand beyond New York City, reaching out to schools in Florida, New Jersey and Washington, DC.
Talking to Easton, Telepan and the rest of the WITS team has helped me overcome – for good – my bias against “chefs in schools” – at least when a chef-led program is executed in this very thoughtful and effective way.
And here’s the fun part for me: I’m headed to D.C. next week for the Food Tank summit, so the folks at WITS graciously invited me attend their annual chefs’ tasting gala in New York City on Monday, April 18th. It promises to be a really fun event – lots of delicious food to sample – so if you’re in the area and would like to support this worthy organization, please consider buying a ticket. I’d love to meet some TLT’ers there in person! 🙂
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