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Restaurant Chefs Propose Taking Over D.C. School Cafeteria

July 21st, 2010 · 9 Comments · Posted in kids, school food

Chef Cathal Armstrong at Tyler Elementary kitchen

Chef Cathal Armstrong at Tyler Elementary kitchen

A group of prominent D.C.-area restaurant chefs has volunteered to introduce a novel concept in school food service to one Capitol Hill elementary school:  collaborating with parents to take over kitchen operations on a non-profit basis, replacing prepackaged and reheated factory meals kids currently eat with food cooked from scratch and served with real plates and cutlery.

Led by Cathal Armstrong, chef and owner of Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, the group would undo the historically knotty issue of school food finances by putting parents to work in the cafeteria as volunteers at Tyler Elementary and using the savings in labor to buy better food, much of it from local growers. The proposal has been approved by D.C. Public School food services, but is still being reviewed by the school system’s procurement division, meaning much paperwork, red tape and potential snags remain between now and August 23, when classes resume.

Armstrong’s involvement with Tyler Elementary stems from a meeting last year with White House assistant chef and food advisor Sam Kass. This would appear to be the first time that first lady Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign has extended its reach into a school food service operation.

Armstrong was at the school yesterday to inspect its ancient kitchen and conduct an inventory of equipment needs, taking photographs of everything in sight. He found a space with lots of room to walk around in–and house temporary offices for school staff–but only a gas-fired convection oven for actual cooking. The oven has been used to reheat the packaged meals trucked in from a factory in suburban Maryland. The chefs group, which includes Robert Wiedmaier of Brasserie Beck, R.J. Cooper, formerly of Vidalia, and noted pastry chef David Guas, hopes to turn the space into a fully operational kitchen with equipment donated by manufacturers, including a stove, a dishwasher and sinks.

With only a few weeks left to go before school resumes, Armstrong and his cohorts were piecing the project together on the fly. Armstrong, who said involving parents in daily cafeteria operations is crucial to the project’s success, met with about 20 Tyler Elementary parents last week at the home of one of the parent organizers, Dan Traster. Traster said an issue of concern to many parents is whether they can  find time to help. But Traster said he already is getting calls from parents who are eager to participate.

“People work and they’re concerned about whether they’ll be able to make the time to help in the cafeteria,” Traster said. “But we have many parents who are really passionate about the food issue. They want to do whatever they can.”

It was still unclear exactly what role parents would play–most likely not cooking food, but perhaps serving meals from the steam table, clearing dishes and otherwise assisting with meal service in the cafeteria. Traster said he thought it would be “a miracle” if the chefs were actually serving meals on the first day of school. But he thought they could be up and running sometime in September or early October.

The kitchen at Tyler Elementary

The kitchen at Tyler Elementary

In an interview at Restaurant Eve last month, Armstrong said the venture began when Kass in a meeting last October provided chefs with a list of local schools to visit and urged them to find a way to get involved in improving school food. Armstrong was assigned to Tyler Elementary at 1001 G Street SE, an economically diverse school with a student population of 300, 81 percent black and 12 percent white. Sixty percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price meals in the federally-subsidized meal program.

Armstrong said he was alarmed by the food he saw being served at the school through the school system’s contracted food service provider, Chartwells. “It was just awful stuff,” he said. In January he met with other chefs at Brasserie Beck, where he reportedly said, “What we are feeding our children is an outrage. We should be marching with picket signs and pitchforks in revolution.” Armstrong subsequently formed a non-profit corporation–Chefs as Parents–to fund and operate a school venture.

Allison Erdle, executive director of Chefs as Parents, said yesterday that the group is seeking financial donations, but already has pledges for up to $100,000 to fund the start-up at Tyler Elementary.

School meals have always been hamstrung by poor financing. The federal government currently provides $2.68 for a fully-subsidized school lunch, but most of that goes to pay for labor and overhead, leaving only about $1 for meal ingredients. As a result, many schools don’t actually cook at all, but rely on reheating cheap, industrially processed convenience foods–those famous chicken nuggets and tater tots–for their cafeteria menus. Reducing the labor end of the equation–in this case by substituting parent volunteers–would free up cash to purchase better ingredients.

Armstrong, who was a 2009 James Beard nominee for “Best Mid-Atlantic Chef,” is an outspoken advocate of fresh, local foods. He sits on the board of Fresh Farm Markets, which operates several farmers markets in the city.

Among the group’s goals: “Get rid of all processed foods filled with preservatives, additives, food coloring, and other chemicals. Find local farmers, ranchers and dairies from which to buy directly. Find foods that are at their peak of ripeness,” as well as “organic or sustainably produced to the maximum extent possible.” And “send positive messages about eating to children and lure them into the kitchen.”

Say goodbye to Styrofoam?

Say goodbye to Styrofoam?

Under the proposal the group submitted to D.C. Public Schools, the chefs would train and hire a full-time chef to run the Tyler Elementary kitchen, but it was still unclear what other paid staff might be needed. The group would “start with a menu comprised of simple, delicious and kid-friendly meals,” but “our vision and mission includes expanding the food options over time.” The proposal also foresees “integration of food and cooking into the academic curriculum through kitchen and garden classroom….We plan to include the children where possible in cooking workshops and invite teachers to work with us to integrate the kitchen and garden into their lessons…”

The proposal calls for working with “nutrition professionals to address the larger issues at hand caused by type-2 diabetes and childhood obesity, as well as linking food and meals with behavioral and other issues…”

Tyler Elementary is undergoing renovations. The cafeteria was being used to store all sorts of tables, chairs, shelving, filing boxes and other paraphernalia. But Armstrong said he was happy with what he saw–especially the big gas line leading to the cooking area, the commercial-quality exhaust hood, and a newly installed steam table.

The project seems like a page from the past, when PTAs ran some school cafeterias. But could this be the future of school food–as a charitable cause?

Said Armstrong: “It’s the only way.”

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  • Diane

    This could be great for the students at Tyler but it sounds like so many projects that never get beyond the pilot stage no matter how successful. It depends too much on local conditions such as awareness of the problem, available volunteers and leadership, in this case chefs. One reason that responsibility for social goods got centralized is that adequate provision could not be made from local resources. Imagine the schools where too few parents have leisure to volunteer, where many don’t speak English, or where they think the school food is just fine. It might be a good model for a certain type of community but it doesn’t sound like a major part of the solution.

  • Dana Woldow

    School food as a charitable cause – what a horrendous idea. The National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program are federal programs, created by Congress and funded by our tax dollars. Bringing in parent volunteers to save on labor costs doesn’t go to the root of the problem, which is insufficient funding.

    For years, PTAs and other parent groups have tried to pick up the slack in school funding, as schools have seen their budgets shrinking. In California, which educates one in eight US students, schools don’t have money for copier paper, or enrichment programs, or classroom supplies (teachers often pay for these out of pocket.) Class size is rising and the school year has been shortened. At what point do we as taxpayers stand up for our kids and say, “ENOUGH!” and demand that the government adequately fund the programs it has mandated in our schools?

    I get it that people in DC schools want change now, not later, but putting the responsibility for providing free labor onto the backs of parents, so that more of the paltry $2.72 cent reimbursement for a free lunch can be spent on the food, misses the point. Parents need to stop saying to Congress “Don’t worry about underfunding our kids’ education and their nutritional health; we will make up the difference.” Why should they? Nothing will change so long as parents just continue to try to make up the difference out of their own time and their own pocketbook.

    There seems to be plenty of tax money to pay for endless wars, bailouts of banks and other financial predators, and farm subsidies to millionaires and agribusiness. Until parents direct their efforts towards getting Congress to change their priorities for spending our tax dollars, this situation will not change.

    Parents (most of whom are working, some at 2 jobs just to keep their families whole) should not have to shoulder the additional burden of volunteering in the school kitchen just to get their kids a decent meal. Right this minute Congress is working on reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act, which, among other things, sets the funding for school meals. An increase of just 6 cents per free lunch has been proposed – where is the outrage?

  • Mike Licht

    The “savings in labor” claim seems ill-advised, practically and politically. Lose it, and build some serious fund-raising capacity into this plan.

  • sb

    How many people will be laid off by this plan? Wouldn’t it be better if the parents who wanted to volunteer instead donated money to pay for the school lunches they want their kids to have (or just pack a lunch) and allow the folks who cook for their kids to keep their jobs?

  • stoddert dad

    How about we take the food factories out of the equation and replace them with menus established by a team of chef volunteers such as Cathal and have the school system hire sous chefs and cooks to purchase and prepare the food? Take the profit out and plow it in to better food.

  • Melanie

    Dana hit the nail on the head. No one could have said it any better. Being a kitchen manager myself at a local elementary and constantly being harassed about meeting budget when looking at the pathetic tray we call a lunch already. It is a gruesome task to meet school district budget, the USDA nutritional analysis guidelines, food service budget, parents concerns, teachers and principles, and the taste buds of the child, let alone the measly reimbursement we get from the government and try to at least break even. KIDS FIRST? I hardly think so. They helped Wall Street what about some better food for kids. Let me tell you since this repression the enormous increase in free and reduced we have had. I know that in my school it has jumped to 92% and this is the only meal these kids see each day.

  • Katrina Bradley

    If money is a problem to fund the Tyler school project you should consider selling tickets to adults in the area to come and eat there cafeteria/restaurant style. The lunch hour could be scheduled after the kids eat so as not to interfere with them. That way professionals can benefit from healthier lunch options as well as raise money for the organic food.

  • Paul

    I applaud Chef Armstrong for taking the lead with this project and agree that there is much room for improvement in what is served to our children. However, the solution of chef-run cafeterias with volunteer parents for workers will create it’s own challenges.
    How will the school district fire all the current unionized cafeteria workers?
    Are volunteer workers a reliable source of labor? You can’t discipline a volunteer for not showing up for work.
    Will all the volunteers be certified food handlers and possess the necessary skills?
    Who will be liable for injuries? Will volunteers be covered by the District’s worker’s comp insurance?
    The District currently serves 12,600 breakfasts, 27,500 lunches and 9,400 snacks per day. Are there enough local suppliers that can provide products in that quantity on a daily basis ( think 27,500 apples or 6,785 lbs of a protein) while meeting the strict new nutritional standards?
    There is a reason why food service companies have contracts with major food producers. They have to assure that product to produce approved menus will be delivered every day, all year.
    I think the attention now focused on school nutrition will start to bring about the needed changes. It is shameful that our government places higher priority on the military and bank bailouts than our children.

  • Vidalia city schools

    Great information keep sharing….