Back when I was running the catering business, my favorite, and most rewarding of our contracts, was with a private elementary school here in the Portland area. Tired of poor lunch choices, we were contacted by a parent who was interested in finding healthier school food options for her children. As a small operation, we hadn’t even considered developing a school lunch program, but parents were so eager to provide better food options for their children that we created a program specific to the school’s needs.
Surprisingly, we found that the children were just as interested in eating healthier options as we were to provide them. Our menus were similar to standard school offerings – simple and kid-friendly, with recognizable selections – except for a distinct difference in the quality of ingredients: pizzas with whole wheat crusts and local organic vegetables, whole grain pastas with hormone-free meatballs, non-traditional menu items like cous cous, brown rice, baked non-breaded chicken bites. Interestingly, even with the differences, we received regular praise from parents excited over their children’s interest in healthier food items. Kids who had never enjoyed certain foods were starting to ask for them at home. Many developed a taste for foods they had never tried before. Over the course of the two years, word spread about our little program, with nine additional local schools inquiring about developing similar operations. Though we were too small to facilitate all of the requests, it was clear that there was both a need and a desire within the community to provide healthier school lunches.
Because of my experience within the school food system, I’m thrilled to see so many becoming involved with school food reform. Chef Jamie Oliver’s enormously popular Food Revolution helped to shed light on the dire need for healthier foods within our national school system, after he helped to pioneer similar school food reform programs across the pond in his native England. Continuing her work to promote healthier food for children, First Lady Michelle Obama’s recent “Chefs Move to Schools” event brought even more recognition to the changes necessary within our schools when she welcomed 400 celebrated chefs to the White House to discuss the issue of higher quality school food options, with a subsequent program pairing chefs with schools across the country a possible indication that perhaps the movement is finally making its way to the front burner.
Last week, chef Tom Colicchio lent his voice to the school food reform mission as well by testifying before the House Education and Labor Committee on the proposed H.R. 5504, “Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act”. Colicchio urged the committee to pass the new legislation which, according to ObamaFoodorama.com, would increase funding for schools across the nation by $8 billion and include advocation of “farm to school sourcing, better trained cafeteria staff, food safety requirements, early childhood nutrition elements, universal access, and a boost for school breakfast program”. The act is imperative to bettering the U.S. educational food system and the health of generations to come. The national legislation would also provide a boost for local farmers and producers as approved sources – including $50 million for Farm to School programs – establishing the beginning of much-needed government support for local farms.
We as chefs, service staff, owners, managers, and restaurateurs have the knowledge and background to truly rally behind this food movement. Support this, and other important food program legislation, by reaching out to your local lawmakers and making your voice heard. Contact your school district about assisting with meal planning and development, as well as finding local food sourcing options. Use your kitchen knowledge, your connections, and your resources to further your local educational food program – for the future of your children, for your neighbor’s children, and for your community.
“There can be no better investment – no better stimulus to our economy – than feeding this nation’s children healthily and well,” ~Tom Colicchio