As Congress, the White House and the D.C. public school system look to raise the bar on the quality of school lunches, one prominent chef is concocting a revolutionary new recipe for feeding kids the right stuff.
Chef Cathal Armstrong, who was voted D.C.’s 2007 top chef, chose Capitol Hill’s Tyler Elementary as the place to propose testing his new model. Grants and parent volunteerism will free up money for the cafeteria to use fresher, less processed ingredients — and fewer of them.
The school’s current food service company, Chartwells, serves hamburgers. At a recent demonstration for parents, Armstrong read off the burger’s ingredient list. “It was about 20 ingredients just in the patty,” said Daniel Traster, a leading parent volunteer for Armstrong’s program, Chefs as Parents. “He said I’ll serve hamburgers to the kids too, so it’s not a shocking change to them. But it will have just one ingredient, and that will be beef. Locally grown, grass-fed beef.'”
Armstrong plans to include more complex and multicultural foods as the program settles in.
The program is a nonprofit and would come at a lower cost to DCPS, which should seal the deal on its approval, former Tyler assistant principal Tandi Tyler said.
It is also the feather in Armstrong’s cap: No profits and no six-figure executive salaries mean more money for ingredients. Allison Erdle, executive director of Chefs as Parents, said in an e-mail that Armstrong would not profit from the program.
Federal standards allocate $2.68 per student per day for lunch. But only about a dollar of that goes toward purchasing ingredients; the rest pays for labor.
Armstrong plans to spend some of that labor money — especially that which would go to him — on getting higher-quality ingredients. He wants to use the untapped potential for parents to help out, but without displacing any paid employees.
About $100,000 in grant money is needed to get the program started, but Armstrong said that spreading the program to more schools in the future would increase the economies of scale and make the program more financially sustainable.
“DCPS gave $30 million to Chartwells to feed 128 schools,” Armstrong said. “If you give me that, I guarantee I’ll feed them a better product. That’s really what the problem boils down to: We’ve really turned it into a profit center for companies. We’ve turned it into a business where somebody’s profiting greatly at the expense of our kids.”
The underbelly of America’s food culture was exposed in British chef Jamie Oliver’s show “Food Revolution,” in which the chef attempted to reform the school lunch system in a West Virginia city declared America’s unhealthiest. Students there were unable to identify vegetables such as tomatoes and cabbage.
“Something has to be done about it before it’s too late,” Armstrong said. “We’re creating a generation that’s going to die younger than us.”
Monotonous, unhealthy food can pose a threat to young students’ mental health and attitude toward what they eat.
Case studies have linked diet with achievement in schools. After a school in Appleton, Wis., replaced soda with water and fast food with fruits and vegetables, it found that the school experienced fewer incidents of drug use, vandalism and student mental health issues — and no longer needed an on-campus police officer.
Over the next few years, assuming DCPS approves the program, Tyler parent and George Washington University sociology professor Ivy Ken plans to track its financial feasibility, as well as the food served and its effects on students’ bodies, minds and attitudes toward food.
Changes are already coming to D.C. schools. Along with the system-wide school renovations, 14 schools are moving to two local providers: Revolution Foods and DC Central Kitchen.
If healthy food really makes kids better students, who’s to stop them from eating it? “Sometimes, I think adults don’t give kids enough credit,” Traster said. “Food that tastes good and is healthy, kids want to eat.”