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

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 4, 2010; C01

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.

Since the launch of Let's Move!, many food service providers have already begun to improve their offerings. In Chicago, for example, Chartwells, the same vendor that works in D.C. public schools, has tightened its nutrition standards and promised to amp up the number of leafy green vegetables and whole grains served.

But Armstrong wants more dramatic change, faster. Over the past several months, he has visited nearby school food production facilities, where he says he was appalled to discover that reheating processed food is considered "cooking." He has recruited a board of directors and philanthropists who have agreed to raise money for the project. The plan is to provide food for one local school, then expand across the city.

Jaleo's Andrés has taken his case to the Hill. He has hosted a series of off-the-record dinners for journalists and policymakers to drum up interest -- they are dubbed the Brillat-Savarin dinners in honor of the French chef who famously said, "Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you who you are." The chef has worked closely with sympathetic lawmakers including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), among others.

Andrés says chefs need to lobby for dollars like everybody else. President Obama requested $10 billion for childhood nutrition programs in his 2010 budget. The Senate has allocated less than half that amount.

"We have to be more outspoken about how we feed our children," Andrés says. "Chefs have to have a bigger role in the school lunch program. They have to have a bigger voice in the political establishment in anything that has to do with food."

Perhaps. But chefs' raging egos may not be well-suited to the moribund ways of Washington or the regulation-bound world of school food.

"Chefs are accustomed to being in charge. But you can't just walk in and overhaul someone's kitchen," notes Ellie Krieger, the host of the Food Network show "Healthy Appetite." "A little bit of anger gets you motivated. But you have to channel it in a positive way and work as part of a team."

For Krieger, who is attending the Chefs Move event, that meant forming a "wellness committee" and establishing vegetable tastings for students at her daughter's public school in Manhattan. Ann Cooper, the nutrition director of the Boulder Valley school district in Colorado who calls herself the "Renegade Lunch Lady," says she believes chefs can have the most impact by educating and inspiring children to eat healthful food.

"We've grown a generation of children who think chicken nugget is a food group," she says. "I think the thing that makes the most sense for chefs who know nothing about school food, which is most of them, is to use our newfound celebrity status to get kids to think about food, taste food, cherish food in the way that we do."

As for larger political aims? "Maybe the answer is that in addition to adopting a school, we should all adopt a congressperson," Cooper says. Maybe all we really need to do is take them to a school and show them what we feed our kids."

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