School food change starts in the school kitchen

School Food Change Starts In The School Kitchen

Tue 16 Nov 2010

Story by Alison Fong
 

Lunch ladies across the states serve food to millions of children everyday. The school kitchen is where the action happens, or should be. Alison Fong, restaurant chef turned School Food Services Director, tells us how she has transformed the food at her school and is integrating their kitchen into the school community.

When I first started working at the Brimmer and May School in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts two years ago, lunches looked much like youíd expect from a typical school lunch - thaw-and-serve chicken nuggets with goopy barbeque sauce and smiley fries was the norm. Italian wedding soup for our soup bar came straight from a can.

Coming from a restaurant kitchen where most things are made from scratch, I had a goal in mind: remove all of our processed, precooked items and replace them with locally-sourced produce and foods we make in-house. We are still working on it today, but boy, weíve come quite a long way. Last week, we served turkey with roasted red potatoes and a locally-sourced house-made butternut squash soup. Our salad bar featured specials such as bulgur and parsley tabouleh, brown rice and squash salad, and Southwestern black bean and corn salad.

When I first started, changing the food system that has been in place for many years seemed an almost insurmountable task. I knew I needed to make a big splash to get the momentum for change going. I picked the one area of the menu where I knew I could quickly, inexpensively, and easily make changes that would get attention: the salad bar. I swapped out canned and frozen veggies for fresh ones and added plenty of whole grains and legumes salads. Students and staff were thrilled by the new offerings and made it a point to tell the kitchen staff, and it encouraged our salad bar cook to continue upgrading. Additionally, the excitement about the changes made it easier for me to forge connections and garner support within the school community. The changes to the salad bar opened the door for me to hold a six-week tasting of organic vegetables from a local CSA (community supported agriculture), which would not have been possible without the help of six teachers and staff who volunteered to pick up the vegetables.

Over the past two years, Iíve found many like-minded students, parents, and staff and worked with them on projects that helped integrate the kitchen into the school community. With members of the schoolís ďgreenĒ team we brought recycling to the kitchen and reusable cups to the dining room. Not only did this reduce trash going to a landfill, it also saved the kitchen money. The kitchen has helped cater events for our diversity committee to showcase cuisines of different cultures, from Korean barbeque to Southern gumbo. This year, Iím working with a student to start a food forum, a group open to students to discuss all things related to school food.

Although national attention has focused on school lunches, getting the respect and funding to make improvements at my school or any school isnít a given. Itís crucial for the community to see the kitchen as a vital part of a schoolís educational mission, not just a place for lunch.

About the author: Alison Fong is the Director of Food Services at Brimmer and May School in Chestnut Hill, MA and writes her blog Brave New Lunch

Photo: Brian Choi

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