Earlier this summer, I spent a week outside Denver, Colorado, sitting in on a “culinary boot camp” designed to take kitchen workers who normally deal in frozen chicken nuggets and Tater Tots and turn them into chefs able to cook meals from raw ingredients. The State of Colorado had competed for and won $400,000 in federal stimulus money distributed by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to fight the obesity epidemic. The state, in turn, channeled the money to the Colorado Health Foundation to conduct a series of school kitchen training sessions.
Leading these “culinary boot camps” was Kate Adamick, a former lawyer-turned-chef and school food consultant, and her partner, Andrea Martin, also a professional chef from New York. Both had worked with Ann Cooper to revolutionize the food in Berkeley, California, schools, as I reported in an earlier post.[ http://www.mariasfarmcountrykitchen.com/a-national-look-at-school-lunches-part-2] They also spend considerable time working with schools in Santa Barbara County, California.
I quickly learned that Adamick does not subscribe to the notion that more money is the obvious fix for school food problems. “I hate the Blanche Lincoln bill,” she said, referring to the Arkansas senator who sponsored the legislation containing that aforementioned 6-cent increase. In Adamick’s view, corporate food vendors would simply raise their prices and gobble up those extra federal dollars in no time. Instead, she advocates targeting money to buying kitchen equipment in schools and training kitchen workers to make their own food smarter, more cheaply.
As I watched, the women (and one man) that Adamick refers to as “kitchen teachers” learned from Andrea Martin and a four experienced helpers the proper way to chop onions for pasta sauce, blanche snow peas for a salad bar, and break down and roast whole chicken carcasses for a terrific barbecue. In the classroom, Adamick taught them how serving free breakfasts in the classroom generates cash to improve lunches, how to plan four-week rotating menus, and the reasons why sugar and processed foods are bad for children’s health.
It was a ton of information to absorb, like drinking water from a fire hose. At the end of the week, the students—one of them a feisty 78-year-old—marched to the head of the class to accept their “diplomas” while Pomp and Circumstance played on a portable stereo. There were hugs, pats on the back, tears, and a few pumped fists. When it was over, they sang a self-composed kitchen “fight song” and broke into cheers.
I have to admit, I was a little choked up just watching. Surely this was a sign of good things to come for school food. But I was in for more surprises. After I returned to DC, I learned that school officials here, whom I had been bombarding with daily blog posts about kids eating sugar-injected breakfasts of strawberry milk, Apple Jacks cereal, Pop-Tarts, and Giant Goldfish Grahams, quietly decided to drop flavored milk entirely from the local school menu and serve only cereals with less than 6 grams of sugar.
That’s not all. While they aren’t ready to start cooking from scratch here in DC, a new food services director announced contracts for two new pilot programs designed to create a little competition for Chartwells, the school system’s hired corporate food service provider. One of those pilots may constitute the most unorthodox school feeding program of all: It went to a nonprofit social services agency—DC Central Kitchen—that uses produce from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley to teach convicted felons how to cook meals for the homeless.
For some time now, DC Central Kitchen has been using a local food distribution system it developed on its own to create business opportunities with upscale grocers and restaurants, as well as to feed the indigent. It processes and freezes tons of local vegetables for use out of season. It hires out its own catering company to help raise revenues for its charitable projects. Now it will be deploying all of those resources into making meals from scratch using locally grown ingredients in seven DC schools.
As a seasoned journalist, it’s my job to see the glass half empty. But the lesson for parents has to be: Don’t be discouraged. All over the country, people who care deeply about the quality of food our children eat at school are working to make it better. You can do something about it as well. You can make your feelings known to your school principal, to the local wellness committee, or to the school board. Heck, you can easily start your own blog. Insist on being able to visit the cafeteria and take pictures of the food. Organize your own parents group.
Slowly but surely, change is happening. Be a part of it.