Chefs Move to Schools: A nutritious program kids can sink their teeth into

More than 500 chefs from 37 states gathered at the White House in June to join Michelle Obama's newest effort to fight childhood obesity, the Chefs Move to Schools program.
By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 4, 2010

It was nearly midnight on a bitter January night when a group of Washington's most celebrated chefs assembled around a long table at downtown hotspot Brasserie Beck to debrief one another on their recent White House mission. Enlisted by the first lady's office in her war against childhood obesity, each had eaten lunch at a D.C. public school. The unanimous verdict was fairly predictable: no stars.

The food, largely paid for by the federal government, was fatty and overprocessed. A breakfast sandwich had more than 100 ingredients, said one chef, angrily waving a photo of what looked like a burrito that he'd taken on his cellphone. Where there were salads, the kids just threw them away, bemoaned another. In one school, a chef reported, there was no cafeteria at all. The kids ate out of pizza boxes at a folding table.

"What we are feeding our children is an outrage. We should be marching with picket signs and pitchforks in revolution," said Cathal Armstrong of Restaurant Eve in Alexandria.

But a wholesale replacement of chicken nuggets and nachos is a tall order. Whatever the chefs think, the meals served in schools do meet federal nutrition standards -- and they are delivered at a price the government is willing to pay. So the city's Iron Chefs -- the group includes White House assistant chef Sam Kass, José Andrés of Jaleo, Todd Gray of Equinox, Spike Mendelsohn of Good Stuff Eatery and Robert Wiedmaier of Brasserie Beck -- decided that each chef would adopt a school. Kass is spearheading the project.

In the months since that meeting, the chefs have taken the first steps to make real the lofty goals of Michelle Obama's Let's Move! initiative, which aims to end childhood obesity within a generation. Gray and Mendelsohn began teaching cooking classes to hundreds of students and parents, and have helped to plant school gardens. Armstrong established a nonprofit catering service with a mission to create healthful, affordable food for public school cafeterias.

On Friday, they and hundreds of other chefs will gather at the White House to launch a national adopt-a-school program. Dubbed Chefs Move to Schools, the initiative will draw both the brightest stars of the culinary universe -- Rachael Ray, Tom Colicchio and Cat Cora -- and the unknown soldiers who staff corporate kitchens, food banks and culinary schools.

Their mission won't be easy. The lack of funding (the federal government allocates $2.68 per child per lunch) and equipment (many schools don't have kitchens) stand in the way of freshly made salads or even hand-cut french fries.

At the very least, the combination of chefs and reality-style makeovers is smart marketing by the White House. But if the nearly 1,000 chefs who have signed on to the program catch the same fever as their Washington counterparts, the hope is that the program could spark a real "Food Revolution," Jamie Oliver-style. A thousand forks of light, if you will.

Witness the excitement at Murch Elementary, the school that chef Gray adopted in January. His first cooking lesson and lecture were scheduled for a Sunday -- after a major snowstorm. And yet about 250 parents and students arrived at the school auditorium in Northwest Washington. Gray, who will talk at the White House event about his experiences, stood on the stage and showed them how to whip up a cucumber and bread salad and a smoothie with blood orange and beet juices.

"The kids were slugging this stuff back," he recalls. "Parents kept saying they'd never seen kids do that."

Mendelsohn, who made his name as a runner-up on the reality TV show "Top Chef," is taking a similar tack at the KIPP Academy in Southeast Washington. The chef was attracted to the charter school, he says, because it "has done the same thing with education as we want to do with food: to reinvent it."

He has taught several Saturday cooking classes that students attend with their parents. (At one lesson, each child was given a tomato and cucumber to slice. The students with the best knife skills paraded their work around the cafeteria.) On Monday, he will plant a rooftop garden for the school.

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