'Chefs in Schools' Program Serves up Nutrition, Adventure and Culinary Fun

Joan Goodchild

Just about every parent knows that kids can be notoriously picky eaters. Getting children to eat vegetables can be challenging enough, but getting them to be adventurous and try unfamiliar foods from different cultures can seem almost impossible.

An initiative led by the non-profit group Project Bread aims to get kids to expand their palates and learn to enjoy all kinds of cuisine and flavors. Through their Chefs in Schools program, they partner with public school districts across the state, working with cafeteria staff to help districts prepare and promote nutritious, kid-friendly, USDA approved foods. Weekly, the chefs and staff pilot different meals in cafeterias that they hope will be a hit with their young critics.

“We try dishes with strong, bold flavors, and look for ways to add texture and color,” said Sam Icklan, Director of the Chefs in Schools program. “When you are working within the context of a school meal pattern, you can’t rely too heavily on sodium and fat and you have to get creative to make it appealing. If kids don’t like it, they won’t eat.”

The result is dishes that are a bit more exotic than traditional school cafeteria fare, including Pollo Guisado, Bahn Mi with Chicken, and Korean-style tacos. When kids give a meal the thumbs up, and the dishes are a success, the districts are able to add it to their regular menu offerings.

“We have a lot of recipes that are popular,” said Icklan. “We look to great recipes that are culturally appropriate and relevant to the population we are working with and we rely on them to share with us what they would like to see, and how they want to see themselves represented on the menu.”

While encouraging experimental and nutritious eating is one goal, the other mission of the Chefs in Schools program is making healthy meals accessible for populations that may not have regular access. Project Bread seeks to work with districts with a high instance of students who qualify for free and reduced meals, typically above 40 percent. Districts must also self-operate their food services and not have programs run by outside organizations.

The reason for this criteria is because many children living in low-income households rely on their daily school meals as a primary source of nutrition. According to Project Bread estimates, the food served in schools makes up half of the daily calories for more than 400,000 students in Massachusetts. It has a significant impact on their health, behavior, and their academic performance, so maximizing the value of each meal served in school is critical. The chefs provide education about healthy food preparation, but having them on campus also provides kids with an in-person resource to learn more about nutrition, which provides them with knowledge they can take home.

“Kids get excited about interacting with the chefs,” said Icklan. “They ask great questions about the food. I think kids have a more expansive vocabulary around food. We want school lunch to be something every child is excited about. It can be tasty and really meaningful.”

The school chefs also look for ways to help cafeteria staff with cooking skills, equipment use, time management, food storage, ordering, inventory control, and selling better choices with the overall goal of creating lasting change in the way food is managed in the district. Project Bread is looking at expanding the program to include school breakfasts in some districts, and is also piloting some new efforts around side dishes, with an emphasis on vegetable preparation. Vegetable dishes could be a tough sell for students, but Icklan isn’t letting that sway him.

“It’s about trying new things every time. Maybe you think you don’t like broccoli, but maybe you just haven’t had it prepared this way and you actually really like it,” he laughed. “We want to make sure we make school meals the best they can be.”

Joan Goodchild is a veteran writer and editor and mom of two living in Central Massachusetts.