Back in March, the Chicago Tribune published a story entitled “Miracle Worker in the School Kitchen,” which featured Paul Boundas, a chef who has taken over the school food at Holy Trinity High School in Wicker Park, Illinois. It was reported that Chef Boundas serves his students delicious, scratch-cooked food (meals like “white [fish] fillets . . . in a crunchy panko-cornmeal crust or baked in olive oil, lemon and herbs, with collard-flecked teriyaki brown rice, olive oil roasted potatoes, steamed broccoli and freshly squeezed lemonade”) while spending the same amount as public school lunch programs.
I expressed some skepticism when that story came out (“Is the Chicago School Food Miracle for Real?”), not because I doubted that the accuracy of the facts, but because often such “miracles” are hard to replicate outside of small school settings or communities where outside funding is contributed to the program. I was soon contacted by the principal of Holy Trinity, who offered to put me in touch with Chef Boundas and he and I spoke by phone in mid-April. It’s taken me some time to write up this post, but I’m pleased to finally be able to share with you my interview with Chef Paul Boundas.
TLT: First, can you tell us a little about your background as a chef? I’ve read that you started out in the restaurant business and am wondering how you made the transition into school food.
Chef Paul Boundas: I was a psychologist with a masters in clinical psychology but I had an interest in food. I was going to get a doctorate, but instead I decided to go to culinary school and started working at The Country House [the restaurant he now owns]. About ten years ago we got an opportunity when a local private school, an elite private school, approached us and asked if we’d be interested in catering for them. We had no school experience at that time but we said we’d do it – with real food – and see if that was something we could sustain. It’s easier being at private school [where one is free from government regulations and reimbursement] and it worked really well, but it was hard to get other people to listen and believe what we were doing wasn’t just a boutique thing.
In 2005, I bought the restaurant and the school end of the business and we decided to see if we could push it a little harder. We got a Catholic high school [to use our services] and, through word of mouth, we’ve been picking up a school every year. [Country House now runs the meal programs at eight schools.] Last year we got the opportunity to work for Holy Trinity. It’s 93% free and reduced [i.e., 93% of the students qualify for free or reduced price lunch under USDA regulations], was losing money, and they’d heard about us through other Catholic schools. They opened up their books, were losing all this money, and needed it to stop. We’d always wanted to get into that [operating a school’s meal service under the National School Lunch Program “NSLP”] and were in a position to take a risk.
TLT: So Holy Trinity is your first experience operating under the NSLP. How has this been different from the other schools you’ve worked for?
CPB: Well, a private school runs totally different. They don’t want to be part of NLSP. But with Holy Trinity, we looked at the government reimbursement rate and looked at their books and invoices and figured we could break even without worrying too much about it, knowing what we know about the food business. But I was shocked that we could turn it around that quickly.
TLT: How many kids are at Holy Trinity, and does the size of the student body affect what you’re able to do? In other words, is it easier to do what you do because you’re working with a small number of students compared to a huge urban district like mine here in Houston?
CPB: There are three hundred students at Holy Trinity. But volume is good for business, not bad. If we had only 50 students it would be next to impossible. Sometimes we factor it out and say, let’s pretend we had 8,000 kids, and we realize we’d do even better – it would be much more profitable because of economies of scale. Remember, food service companies are not losing money.
TLT: Is the campus closed, i.e, are students able to go off campus or do they have to buy their meals at school?
CPB: The campus is closed but you have to give kids a reason to stay. It’s simple economics. If you have $3 in your pocket and that’s all you have, you can get something right there at school that you don’t have to pay for and that you like. You can use your $3 and get McDonald’s later, and still get a meal here.
TLT: But can kids bring lunch from home? In other words, what’s the participation rate in your lunch program?
CPB: Last year the school was losing money. Participation was at 70%, now it’s 85%. Last year the breakfast participation was 26% last year, this year it’s 40%. If you value something, you’ll use it.
TLT: Have there been issues with students accepting the new foods?
CBP: Kids aren’t geared to like junk food. They’re geared to like what tastes good to them. You have to know how to sell it to the kids. It isn’t extremely hard, but you let them try it. We don’t do any advertising, we don’t jam it in their face, we let them physically taste the food and once the first kid likes it, you have the whole school eating it. It spreads through the cafeteria faster than anything.
And we didn’t start with broiled fish, we started with understandable foods, but slowly we built confidence among the kids. They can see the work that goes on behind the scenes and they start to respect it and want to support it.
We also bring kids into the kitchen. We thought, this is a shame, not to use this this kitchen. Kids don’t have access to home economics anymore, we’re cutting all these programs, and now that’s happening here for no cost. We added a home economics class, we started a culinary club and a wellness committee. We’re having our first community dinner in May and the students will be preparing it.
TLT: Has the school seen any improvements in behavior or anything like that since the new food program was started?
CPB: We work closely with a local doctor who has taken his medical practice and transformed it into a wellness center with a kitchen to teach healthy living. We’re looking now at whether there’s any improvement in academics and behavior, and there are two doctors at Harvard who are also very interested. They want to take it to the next level by looking at BMI’s and following the kids from a health, grade and attendance standpoint. The doctors talked to the kids and some of the comments were amazing. One person asked them how the school food affects their eating fast food, and one kid said, “Honestly, I used to go there [fast food restaurants] five or six times a week, and now I go only once or twice a week. The food doesn’t taste as good – it’s too, salty, too sweet, and it doesn’t make me feel as good.”
TLT: Here in Houston, as in most school districts, about $1 of the government’s $2.74 reimbursement rate is spent on the food itself. How much do you spend on food, on average?
CPB: We spend around $1 depending on the meal, and how much the commodities help out. Next year will do better with commodities, because we couldn’t order them last year. One thing I give Obama credit for is that there are a whole lot better choices [in the commodity program]. We can get things like whole grain pasta, brown rice, and kids will eat it.
TLT: My school district, like most, supplements the revenue it gets from the National School Lunch Program by selling “a la carte” foods like chips and ice cream at full price to kids. Does Holy Trinity offer a la carte foods?
CPB: Last year they were selling baked Flaming Hot Cheetos but it’s hard to find them now. There’s basically no a la carte stuff. Right now everything on our menu is an item that can fit into a meal. So we might be offering a specialty sandwich but it’s a fresh chicken breast parmesan or a Cajun chicken sandwich, or we might have a pasta bar, and they can take that, along with sides and fruit, so they can still get the reimbursable meal. It helps us to have things like the chicken sandwich because it boosts participation.
TLT: And all your cooking is from scratch, right? No processed foods?
CPB: Yes. And the thing that irritates me most about [processor] rebates, that you don’t hear about, is there’s nothing that I buy fresh that I could buy cheaper processed. Look at [processed] chicken patties, which are around sixty-nine cents. Yesterday we took boneless chicken thighs and ground them up and made a patty and coated them in panko cooked them on a grill. The chicken cost $1.30 a pound, or around 25-30 cents for a patty, and it’s what a kid is going to prefer.
TLT: Where does the rest of your $2.74 go, after food costs? What about labor costs, janitorial services, managing the NSLP paperwork, things like that?
CBP: The $1.74 goes to labor and overhead. We pay the schools directly to be in their kitchen and at Holy Trinity, with the money we’re generating, we take a management fee. We do pay insurance but the school administers the program. They didn’t add an extra janitor. [With respect to the aspects of the program that the school pays for], we’ve probably given back to the school that amount and more in free catering [for school functions, etc.] and services.
[As for labor,] we’re not paying big food processors – you have to look at the whole picture. This is taxpayer money and we have a responsibility to use it wisely. We put it in the hands of people who care. And when you put people on the job that care about it, they will do a great job. I don’t want to be the next Aramark or Sodexo [huge food service management companies that operate school food programs for profit.] I want to take that money and put it in the hands of smaller people who aren’t trying to make a killing but just do the job right, build up their own businesses and build our local community. For example, we were recently able to hire our own pastry chef to do all our baking from scratch.
TLT: So how much of what you do at Holy Trinity can be adopted by other school districts, in your opinion?
Well, there are sometimes huge systems that are so badly run, there’s not enough money [to do things well.] There’s money being lost in administration, mismanagement, the business not being set up correctly. In any city, you have to look at whole thing and ask, why is this failing? From a business and a nutrition standpoint you have to see if something works, and if it works, see how you can use it. There’s no program you can take exactly [and transplant it] because every school runs a little differently. When we go into a school we’re very flexible. We figure out what we need to do to get the job done.
* * *
Speaking with Chef Boundas was a real pleasure. His passion for, and commitment to, the students he feeds everyday is palpable and infectious. But in terms of the big question I set out to answer – can a from-scratch program like Chef Boundas’s be replicated in a huge urban district like my own, using the same federal dollars? — I ultimately feel that it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison.
For example, here in Houston, participation in the NSLP drops steadily as kids reach high school – high school campuses are usually open (kids can leave at lunch) and competitive food is widely sold, all of which drains money from the federally run program. That’s very different situation from a high school like Holy Trinity where kids have no other lunch options (besides lunch from home), keeping the level of federal reimbursement dollars higher. Furthermore, many public schools lack the facilities for cooking and food storage that Chef Boundas has at his disposal, and while I didn’t find out exactly what Chef Boundas pays his labor, it may well be less than labor costs would be in a highly unionized district.
Similarly, I didn’t press Chef Boundas on his statement that “volume is good for business, not bad.” That may well be true up in terms food costs, but I think it overlooks the fact that as a program gets bigger, so do its administrative burdens. (E.g., compare the costs of administering the NSLP paperwork for the 80% + of Houston’s 200,000 students who qualify for free and reduced price lunch, or the significant overhead costs charged our Food Services by the district for things like garbage collection, electricity, insurance, payroll, human resources, etc.)
And even the original school food “miracle” story in the Chicago Tribune noted that his program might be hard to replicate in public schools there:
While some of Boundas’ techniques could be employed in the Chicago Public Schools, creating food from scratch is difficult in a system with few highly skilled cooks and no working kitchen in about a third of its schools. The district awards a single food service contract for its 600 schools, discouraging the kind of relatively small, nimble operation Boundas runs.
But all that said, I hung up the phone with Chef Boundas feeling genuinely moved. It was inspiring to speak with someone who so deeply cares about what he does and who treats his students with obvious dignity and respect. He doesn’t dumb down his food and kids rise to the occasion, eating foods that I know my own district would be afraid to serve on the theory that “kids just don’t like X.” And he clearly doesn’t feel that his job ends with the service of a meal — as discussed above, he uses his time and energy to bring kids into the kitchen, providing cooking and nutrition education that will serve his students well in the long run.
At the end of our call, he and I talked about the fact that making sweeping changes in big urban districts like my own - fewer “junk-food-like” entrees and moving away toward more scratch cooking — would never be easy, especially since many people have come to accept the status quo of processed-foods-shipped-from-afar. It would take a lot of political courage and, of course, significant amounts of money.
Said Chef Boundas:
If I were working with a Chartwells [another huge food service management company], I’d be hitting my head against the wall. Here I can do a good job for people and everyone’s happy, the school, the parents and the students. It’s true that private and charter schools can do these things more easily, but we all need to stop and look around.
It’s like in health care, where we reimburse people to treat things that are 100% preventable earlier on. We’ve basically fallen asleep and let kids down. Now we have to bite the bullet and get ourselves back on the right track.
Amen to that.
I’d like to thank Chef Boundas for taking the time to answer my questions last month, and I apologize to him — and to you — for taking so long to get this post together. You can see a video interview with Chef Boundas and some of his mouthwatering school food here.
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