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School Lunch Goes Gourmet

Next September, school lunch will be transformed. According to new federal rules, schools will have to serve more fresh fruits and vegetables and less processed, high-fat food.

But beans and broccoli are the bane of many kids’ existence. So the question looms: how do you get kids to eat the stuff?

As NHPR’s Elaine Grant reports, Souhegan High School in Amherst may have found the answer.

His name is Chef Jim.

“There’re potatoes, summer squash, zucchini, peppers, and they’re seasoned with the chef’s curry seasoning, we have brown rice, and then we have our chicken bruschetta…”

Just as chicken bruschetta and curried vegetables aren’t your mother’s school lunch, Danielle Collins is not your mother’s lunch lady. You might say she’s a school nutrition director on steroids.

Since she took charge of the school food in Amherst and Mont Vernon a year ago, she’s made dramatic changes.

We’re touring the Souhegan High School cafeteria.

The abundant, colorful dishes make it look – and smell – more like a restaurant buffet than a public school. The variety is enormous.  

“This is lemon thyme chicken wings, the thyme was taken from the garden, we use fresh lemons; this is a whole grain pasta…”

Although Souhegan is an open campus and the kids can leave for lunch, the cafeteria is jammed.

And that’s likely because of the lemon-thyme chicken creator, Jim McAden.  

Until a year ago, the towering, soft-spoken chef ran the Fisher Cats’ food service at Merchant’s Auto Stadium in Manchester.

But when Collins recruited him to become one of the first chefs to work in a Granite State public school, he bit. “ I thought the challenge was gonna be amazing, and figured we could do something to kinda change things.”

To Collins and McAden, there were three big things that needed changing.

First, the school food was awful – at least according to seniors Michael DeMarco and Madison Thompson

“It was a lot like chicken patties and burgers and really bad French fries.”

 “I was really, really nervous about the meat here, like I wouldn’t touch it, I wouldn’t look at it, if something was meat I wouldn’t buy it.”

So students brought their lunch or ran to nearby fast-food joints – Taco Bell, KFC, McDonald’s, Burger King, and the local pizza parlor.

Second, because school cafeterias are supposed to be self-sustaining businesses, losing kids to what Danielle Collins calls her competitors meant losing money. “General funds would help supplement our program because we simply were coming up at a loss each and every year.”

Third, the kids were eating crummy food, whether at McDonald’s or in the cafeteria. And the lack of nutritious food at Souhegan really burned teacher Regina Sullivan.

Two years ago, she asked the school board to please do something about the lousy food.

Working a weight loss program with other Souhegan teachers, Sullivan had lost 35 pounds.

The teachers really wanted to keep the weight off. “And that’s really what got us crabby with the school board, because we couldn’t eat in the cafeteria. There was nothing those teachers could eat in the cafeteria…because it was all processed foods.”

Sullivan had also become addicted to Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution TV show.

He’s the British chef who transformed the food in Huntington, West Virginia.

She had a vision.

“And I said to them at the school board meeting, I am Souhegan’s Jamie Oliver. I said we have to have fresh food for our kids and our staff, for this school’s community.”

But with all the talk about fresh fruits and vegetables, one thing is rarely mentioned – the skills to cook it.

Which is why Sullivan pleaded for a chef.

“Now you’re having someone professionally trained in the culinary world, who knows how to work with real food, who can whip up all kinds of fresh food for us rather than opening boxes of processed foods and putting them in ovens.”

The school board hired Danielle Collins, who in turn hired Chef Jim.

It was clear to Collins that the students weren’t a captive audience.

Just like any restaurateur, she had to make them want to eat at her place of business.

But with the federal wellness policies in place, she also has to abide by strict nutrient regulations – so many calories, so much fat.

The way toward both health and profits? Simple.

Collins firmly believes kids will forsake French fries for fresh fruit if it tastes good. “What we need to do is offer great food that’s delicious. Because the reality is that delicious is what draws them in, not good for you.”  

Chef Jim spends his days trying out new recipes, like fish tacos with Baja sauce – a huge hit. “Sour cream, chipotle peppers, cilantro, caramelized onions, and fresh lime, all pureed together….”

The Souhegan cafeteria is hardly Spartan.

A hungry kid can still buy chips and even Pop-Tarts at Souhegan – although Collins says without irony that the vendor is switching to multi-grain, low-sugar Pop Tarts.

But pretty much, it’s turned out just the way teacher Regina Sullivan wanted. The kids like the food – the crowded cafeteria is proof.

Last year, the program turned a profit of $3,200.

But because a chef-run school lunch works here hardly means it can work everywhere. Souhegan is a very wealthy school. Only about two percent of the kids get free or reduced lunch.

Parents willingly pay $3.25 a meal. “Our prices are high in comparison to other communities,” Collins admits. “We can offer things for $3.25 that you cannot offer if you’re selling your lunch for $2.00 or less.”

So a professional chef may be out of reach for many school districts.

But Collins says any school can and should shop wisely for high quality ingredients.

And with a few seasonings and some sleight of hand in the kitchen, they can convince kids to eat broccoli and brown rice.

At least now and then.

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