At White House's behest, chefs move to schools

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 12, 2010; 12:22 PM

The third-graders at Chicago's McAuliffe Elementary School were a tough crowd. They liked the story of "Little Pea," the twisted tale of a good little vegetable who tries valiantly to eat all his candy before having spinach for dessert. But when it came to actually tasting vegetables themselves, the students, each wearing a paper toque, were resistant. Chef Melissa Graham circulated, encouraging them to try just one bite - and not to spit it out. In the end, there were converts, even fans, of radishes and bell peppers. Cauliflower? Not so much.

It was the same story at 67 public schools across Chicago last week. Chefs arrived with a story, some snacks and a message about healthful eating. The day was the first coordinated push of Chefs Move to Schools, the White House initiative that aims to create a volunteer chef corps to educate kids about food and nutrition.

"You know more about food than almost anyone, other than the grandmas," Michelle Obama told a cheering crowd of more than 500 chefs who gathered on the White House lawn on a sweltering June afternoon to kick off the program. "And you've got the visibility and the enthusiasm to match that knowledge."

The chefs' zeal was palpable. But even at the launch, there was grumbling and plenty of post-event commentary in the blogosphere about whether chefs really could make a difference: They may know food, but do the adrenaline-fueled night owls have the teaching skills and personalities to work with kids? Would they have, or create, the time to make a long-term commitment? Most important, how would chefs figure out what would be most helpful to the schools? The Chefs Move program doesn't mandate a specific curriculum, letting individual schools and chefs determine their type and level of involvement.

"There are plenty of people that are excited. But I worry that they will lose steam if they don't have the ability and support to keep it going," said Michelle Stern, a nutrition educator in San Rafael, Calif., who attended the launch. "You risk getting a bunch of amazing chefs who go in one, two or three times, and that's it."

Early signs are that the program is beginning to take off. The Chicago Chefs in the Classroom event was organized by an established local nonprofit group, the Healthy Schools Campaign, which helped match chefs with schools and provided a curriculum and nutrition talking points. In San Rafael, the school district has hired Stern, who has also long been an involved parent, to help get kids excited about new salad bars. In each of the district's seven public elementary schools, Stern is holding assemblies at which students can taste new vegetables and learn how to choose and combine flavors.

Corporations also are supporting the effort. Cookware makers All-Clad and T-fal have donated 1,000 chef kits, which include pots, bowls, a high-tech fryer and a portable induction burner, to schools that sign up for the program.

Here in Washington, White House chefs Cristeta Comerford, Bill Yosses and Sam Kass have adopted Tubman Elementary School in Columbia Heights. On Tuesday, after several planning meetings with the principal and teachers, the three held their first Breakfast and Books event with younger students and their parents. The chefs read the books "The Vegetables We Eat" and "Grandma's Garden" and talked about the importance of healthful eating. In coming weeks, the chefs will hold a similar event for older students. They also plan to offer school-wide assemblies that include cooking demonstrations.

The White House chefs wanted to do their part, said Kass, who also serves as a senior policy adviser for healthful food initiatives. Through the work at Tubman, Kass said, he hopes to set a step-by-step example of how chefs around the country can connect with local schools. At their first meeting last month, Kass and Yosses - and a White House videographer - met with school administrators. In the coming weeks, a series of videos and blog posts will be published on the Chefs Move to Schools Web site.

"This stuff is hard. Schools are big, autonomous and intimidating places," said Kass, who is spearheading the Chefs Move program. "We know the first step is the hardest step, and it's going to take some real initiative by all of us to make progress."

That is certainly true for one of the most ambitious chef efforts, Chefs as Parents. The nonprofit group was formed over the summer by Washington area chefs Cathal Armstrong, R.J. Cooper, David Guas and Robert Wiedmaier. Their goal: to raise money and hire a chef to revamp and run the food service at Tyler Elementary School on Capitol Hill. If the project is successful, they hope to bid for food service contracts at other District schools and serve as a model for other nonprofit groups around the country.

The chefs formed their plan last spring after visits to D.C. public schools at the White House's request. What the chefs saw on cafeteria trays astounded them: breakfast sandwiches with nearly 100 ingredients, including additives and preservatives; sugary cereals; very few appetizing vegetables.

The team met with officials from D.C. Public Schools this summer and put together a 60-page proposal for a pilot project. But bureaucracy soon got in the way. DCPS said it would take 50 business days to get approval for the project, which meant it couldn't be started until after schools opened in the fall. The chefs agreed to wait and, if approval came, begin in January. But after 50 days, the nonprofit group had heard nothing from school officials. At nearly 80 days, there was still no word.

The group began looking at other options, says Armstrong. Then, this week, news came that DCPS would put out a call for new food-service proposals. Chefs as Parents hopes to start in Tyler in January.

Armstrong says he does not expect all chefs to take on the byzantine world of school lunch, nor does the White House. "Are chefs going to solve the school lunch dilemma? Absolutely not. That's like asking Kevin Costner to solve the gulf oil crisis," he said. "We have chosen to be ambitious. But all the White House has asked is that chefs participate and raise awareness of what real food is."

Everyone agrees that will take time.

"It took us decades to make school food this bad," says Ann Cooper, the school food service director for Boulder, Colo., who calls herself the Renegade Lunch Lady. "It won't be fixed in a few weeks. It's going to be a learning curve for everyone."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company