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Feature Tue Apr 17 2007
This week there was a big change in the cafeteria at Louisa May Alcott public school in Lincoln Park. The chicken nuggets, syrupy fruit cups and peanut butter and jelly on wafer crackers were set aside, and in their place is a new menu from the Organic Schools Project.
Alcott is the first Chicago public school to have the program in its lunchroom, though there are two other schools also participating, Hammond Elementary and McCorkle. David Domovic, Alcott’s principal, said he read an article about Greg Christian, the OSP's founder, in a South Loop newspaper a few years ago, and "I couldn’t get to the phone fast enough," Domovic said. Christian, a local chef with his own catering company, became interested in organic food after he saw how a change in diet helped stave off his daughter’s chronic asthma attacks. He now wants to help other families understand and become more connected to the food they eat.
As a parent, he knows that it takes more than piling salad on school lunch trays. Most kids don’t think much of green food. So in addition to a new lunch menu, the OSP and Alcott have planted a garden on the school property and they have health educators visiting classrooms to teach the kids about nutrition and stress reduction. My kids now dole out advice about Ujjaye breathing. In Domovic's eyes, "the garden is the coolest part. The students participate. They see it, touch it, grow it," he says, which will ideally lead to more mindful eating.
My two kids go to school at Alcott, so I'd been receiving notes and updates about the project all year. I knew that the new menu would be rolled out on April 9th, but I'd seen a copy and it seemed I’d still have to pack lunches every morning. My children refuse to join their parents and peers in eating meat, and while the new food is healthier, the menu still features a lot of meat. Lunches still consist of sloppy joes, pizza, tacos and turkey sandwiches, in part because that’s what kids like to eat and in part because Alcott is still working with the same food-service contractor. But they now order from organic suppliers like Cascadian Farm, Annie’s Homegrown, Healthy Handfuls and, of course, Greg Christian Organic.
As anyone who has shopped Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s knows, organic is a lot more expensive. "It costs four times more than what we used to serve,” said Domovic. “Right now there are grants, and we won’t charge the families more,” he said. “But we knew we could never make the change without having to pay.” That part of the program is still being worked out. They might make a call for donations, and they might eventually have to raise the price of school lunches. But not before the school community has had time to digest their new food.
After seeing the healthy looking food choices in the cafeteria my 4th grade son, Henry, came home buzzing about it. He said he could see actual oatmeal in the oatmeal cookies. “You could tell it didn’t come from a food processing place, you know?” he said. He really wanted to try the new menu. So I slept in late the next morning, not faced with my usual desire (never actually accomplished) to match the lunches prepared by the woman at veganlunchbox. I stayed in bed until it was time to round up $3.70 for two school lunches.
Since I live close to the school, I decided to visit the cafeteria to see how students liked their new, healthier menu. The lunchroom was definitely abuzz. Perhaps eating food with real nutrients was giving them energy. Or, more likely, lunch is when they’re finally free to talk about their weird dreams, weird parents and the alternate lives they lead on Club Penguin.
The first boy I saw, 4th grade Benedict Girardi, was eating a slice of pizza and had an opened box of oatmeal cookies on his tray. I asked if these were the cookies that Henry had mentioned, and if they were as good as Henry said they looked. And, more importantly, why were his cookies open if he hadn’t finished his lunch? He insisted he’d only tried one little cookie, and was going to finish his pizza before eating the rest. “The dessert today is better than yesterday,” he said. Both were oatmeal cookies, but yesterday it was a big cookie (from Greg Christian’s own organic line) instead of a box of mini ones. As for the pizza, Benedict said it was almost the same as before — but the slices are bigger.
Other kids said the pizza, also from Christian, was better than the Tony’s Thin Crust pizza they used to get. Many said the biggest difference was that it wasn’t as greasy as it used to be. Adriana Bravo, a 6th grader, also said it was better because “there’s a little less crust on the side.” But Tina Czaplinska, another 6th grader, thought the old pizza was better. “This one has a different cheese and wasn’t as greasy. Maybe that’s just because I was used to the old pizza. I’ll get used to this pizza too,” she said.
Lizzie Walsh, a 4th grader, was immediately impressed on Monday by the color of the peas. “The vegetables are actually green,” she said. “They used to be gray and brown. And on all the food, I used to look at the nutrition labels, and it used to have trans fats. Now it doesn’t have anything bad in it,” she said, holding up her box of mini oatmeal cookies.
Everyone agreed with Lizzie’s assessment of the vegetables. “The salads were packaged. Everything was wrapped in plastic. Now they have fresh salads,” said Samuel Ghansah. Their teacher, Megan Tomczyk, thought so too. She walked over to the table to collect her 4th graders, and rubbed her belly. “It was so good!” she said. “Especially the salad. It used to taste like plastic. Now you can actually taste the greens.”
At a nearby table I saw another teacher about to take the last bite of his school lunch. Francisco Lagares, who teaches social studies to 6th through 8th graders, looked happy with his food. “I eat the lunch here all the time. I’m a single guy. I’m too lazy to make my own lunch. This is definitely better quality with fresher ingredients,” he said. One of his students, who I can’t name because he didn’t have a permission slip, had a very different opinion. “You want to know what I think?” he piped up. “It’s nasty. They should send it back.” The little slot on his lunch tray for salad was still full of bright green baby lettuce leaves.
I found a vegetarian among the 6th graders. After years of having to eat the peanut butter and jelly on wafer crackers, she was delighted to have a full belly after lunch. The PB&J crackers and the other food she ate “didn’t taste any good,” said Netwa Tewodros. “For vegetarians, now there’s more choice.”
My daughter, Stella, who is in the 1st grade, thought the pizza was about the same. But the fruit salad was much better. The old fruit salad used to be in water (more likely syrup, since it came from a can). This fruit salad had real, cut up fruit.
That takes a lot more time to prepare. Diane Amayo, an aide in the cafeteria and the mother of two Alcott students, said, “It’s a lot different. More fresh stuff that has to be prepared.” But, clearly, the students and their families seemed to be excited about the organic menu. This week she said she’s seen more kids who normally don’t eat lunchroom food come through the line. On Tuesday, when I went in, Ms. Amayo said the school had doled out over 350 lunches, more than they had in a while. “On pizza day it’s always higher, but this was even more than that.”
Ms. Amayo said that the OSP team had been coming into the cafeteria periodically throughout the year, and then pretty regularly for the last month or so. Besides Christian, the chef behind the program, the OSP’s director of logistics, Josephine Lauer, has been in the school, studying the eating habits of the kids and learning how the kitchen works and what they might need in order to prepare more fresh food. For the time being, Lauer and the OSP team are ordering food. Once the cafeteria has the system and the menus down, it will work on their own again.
As for my work in the mornings, after two days of school lunch Stella is back to bringing a lunch from home. The new grilled cheese is served on whole-wheat bread, something she has a strict rule against. Henry, however, is still excited about the school’s food. But I don’t feel I’ve been made redundant. “Their food is almost as good as your cooking,” he reassured me.