How a D.C. school puts fresh food on the lunchroom tables

Stokes charter school students Nisa Morgan, left, Oriana Escobar and Sucha Mulholland at the cafeteria's salad bar.
Stokes charter school students Nisa Morgan, left, Oriana Escobar and Sucha Mulholland at the cafeteria's salad bar. (Lisa Dobbs)
By Lisa Dobbs and Linda Moore
Sunday, February 28, 2010

In his Feb. 14 Outlook commentary, "In D.C. school cafeterias, a long way from here to healthy," Ed Bruske asked a question on the minds of nearly every school parent, from Michelle Obama on down: How do we make the transition from feeding our children industrial food filled with artificial substances to freshly prepared, whole foods that are healthy for kids? At the Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School in Northeast, we think we've found the answer.

This month, we began preparing fresh food from fresh ingredients on site. One recent lunch, for instance, was black bean chicken, jasmine rice, Whole Foods-brand green peas, fresh apple slices tossed with cinnamon and low-fat white milk (chocolate is offered one day a week). The fresh chicken breast comes from a distributor, but it will soon be supplied by a local farmer. All the chicken, garlic, ginger, scallions and black beans that go into the dish are fresh, and we peel and chop everything ourselves.

So how does one get from reheating to fresh cooking?

We do it with a lot of hard work, and a lot of help. Stokes bought a building that was equipped with an antiquated but functioning kitchen. The Vulcan stoves and gas tops are more than half a century old, but after giving them a serious cleaning and turning on the gas for the first time in many years, we are able to cook with them. As Bruske pointed out, most local school kitchens have little actual cooking equipment, a serious impediment to fresh in-school food preparation.

To cook for and serve the nearly 400 adults and children who make up the Stokes population, we have a kitchen staff of five. We clean up afterward and do the paperwork required to comply with the Agriculture Department's National School Lunch Program in order to receive the reimbursements that are the lifeblood of school lunch service nationwide. If the reimbursements reflected the higher costs of fresh food preparation, more schools would be able to make the transition.

We offer our students and staff members a full salad bar every day, thanks to the donation of a refrigerated bar from the United Fresh Produce Association. It is simply not true that kids do not eat vegetables. What is true is that they will not eat -- nor will most adults -- vegetables that have been frozen or processed until they become nasty mush. Our kids ravage that salad bar every day. We literally run out of most things we put out, especially the uncooked cauliflower, broccoli and leaf spinach. And these are pre-K through sixth-graders!

We are not a rich school. Our funds are limited. So the second reason we were able to do this is that we asked for, and received, a lot of help.

A small, superbly effective Washington-based nonprofit called Through the Kitchen Door, with funding from Kaiser Permanente, made our start-up possible. Through the Kitchen Door secured donations of most of the equipment we needed, much of which came from Whole Foods Market, which has a program of promoting healthy nutrition in local schools. We used money from the stimulus bill to buy a commercial refrigerator, freezer and a hot holding cabinet and to hire three additional kitchen staff members.

Our wish list of needs is still long, but little by little we are making progress. One parent owns a local farmer's market and is putting us in touch with farmers who can supply us year-round. Thanks in part to the first lady, improving school lunches has shot to the top of the nutrition agenda in Washington, which makes this a good time to apply for grants. We are making full use of every fruit and vegetable program that the U.S. government offers.

We work bare bones at the moment. But everyone in the building is devoted to the idea that when children are properly nourished and their bodies are healthier, they can learn, think and play better, and are ultimately better equipped to reach their potential.

Lisa Dobbs is the Stokes kitchen chef. Linda Moore is founder and director of the school.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company