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Foodservice goes back to school

A look at the pending overhaul of school lunches and chef participation in culinary education

As students across America head back to school after Labor Day, they will notice new involvement in school food programs from professional chefs and the nation’s retail foodservice industry.

Restaurant companies are getting increasingly involved in school food programs as they observe childhood obesity rates climbing, an issue targeted by a growing number of organizations and programs championed by first lady Michelle Obama.

From the White House to local school boards, foodservice programs throughout the education system are welcoming various levels of support and operational expertise from retail restaurant chains and chefs alike:

Program: Wellness in the Schools

“We have that out-there, crazy idea that food is going to look different 20 years from now, and we can help shape that,” Nick Marsh, chief executive of the 14-unit Chop’t Creative Salad Co. LLC of New York, said. “There has to be some level of responsibility from those of us in the foodservice business.”

Chop’t was a founding sponsor of New York City-based Wellness in the Schools organization, which works to help evolve school food. The company donates $25,000 a year to the program and leads several educational sessions throughout the city’s school systems.

“So far the reward has been the satisfaction that we’re having an impact on the youngest set of future eaters in inner-city schools,” Marsh said. “We are having a significant impact on their understanding of food in the world.”

In addition to its support of Wellness in the Schools, Chop’t has adopted a public school in Harlem this year, donating recipes and equipment, said Lysa Chen, the company’s marketing manager. The chain also has developed "salad sandwich" recipes that become part of the lunch rotation at the school and created “Cafe Days” that seek to raise awareness of new menu items, careers in the culinary fields, menus and ingredients.

Program: Chefs Move to Schools

Recently, Sam Kass, assistant White House chef and senior policy adviser for healthy food initiatives, addressed the American Culinary Federation’s national convention, speaking about the Obama administration’s Let’s Move Campaign and Chefs Move to Schools program. The ACF is a partner in Chefs Move.

Kass said the first lady came to support the programs after seeing national figures that show one in three children in America is obese, that $150 billion is spent each year to treat obesity and its related conditions and that obesity is now the No. 1 disqualification for military service.

VIDEO: Sam Kass talks about chefs and schools

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And with Technomic, the Chicago-based consultancy, estimating that the U.S. elementary/secondary school (kindergarten through 12th grade) system educates more than 56 million students with enrollment expected to exceed 60 million by the year 2017, the audience for nutrition education is massive.

Paul O’Toole, executive chef of the Deerfield Golf and Tennis Club in Newark, Del., hosts monthly Chefs Move to Schools demonstrations at UrbanPromise, a charter school in Wilmington, Del. He began his volunteer work in September 2010 as part of the ACF’s partnership with the White House’s Chefs Move to Schools program.

“I didn’t want to get involved with a lunch program that was established and already had some ‘lunch mothers,’” O’Toole said, explaining why he went with a small charter school. “It’s a center-city Christian-based school, and it doesn’t take any public money. Their spirit and attitude and passion to learn is overwhelming.”

Program: Healthy Kids Lunch Program

EVOS, the Tampa, Fla.-based fast-casual chain, is expanding its Healthy Kids Lunch Program in Florida and Georgia. The program, which debuted two years ago, offers affordable and healthful options to families with school children, and ordering of the lunchboxes can be done online through participating schools. EVOS said this week it expects to double the number of lunches served in the first three months of this school year. The restaurant chain operates four stores in the Tampa Bay market, two in metro Atlanta and one each in the Miami area and in Chapel Hill, N.C.

EVOS’s most popular school offerings include steak burgers and hotdogs made from naturally-raised beef; hormone-free, air-baked chicken strips and new vegetarian corn dogs. Each meal comes with an option of fruit/veggie item, snack item and bottle water.

“The success of the EVOS Healthy Kids Program illustrates just how much parents value the opportunity to play an active role in the nutritional well-being of their children not only at home but also when the school bell rings,” Jackie Macaluso, director of marketing at EVOS, said. “Good nutrition creates great students and is more important than ever in making sure they succeed.”

Chefs’ future in schools

The School Nutrition Association, a National Harbor, Md.-based organization that monitors school nutrition issues and represents more than 50,000 school nutrition professionals nationwide, conducted a survey that found:

-- 10.1 percent of school nutrition directors said they have current chef partnerships underway.
-- 7.1 percent of school nutrition directors said they are planning to implement a chef partnership.
-- 28.9 percent of school nutrition directors expressed interest in forming a chef partnership.

Alan Snel contributed to this report.

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless

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