Chef brings healthy flavor to school cafeterias

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil | 3/1/2011, 7:36 p.m.
Chef Kirk Conrad, a graduate of the Culinary...
Chef Kirk Conrad, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, prepares food in the cafeteria of the Mario Umana Middle School Academy in East Boston. Conrad is part of Project Bread’s initiative, Chefs in Schools, that brings healthy food to low-income children in the Boston area. Joshua Touster, Project Bread

At lunchtime, students from the Boston Arts Academy would leave their classes early and run to the cafeteria. Unlike most high schoolers, they couldn’t wait to eat a school lunch. On Mondays, that is.

On Mondays, their meals were prepared not by “lunch ladies,” but by the former chef of Top of the Hub restaurant in downtown Boston.

Boston Arts Academy was part of “Chefs in Schools,” Project Bread’s initiative to connect low-income children with healthy, high-quality food. To do this, Chef Kirk Conrad, a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, travels to eight different schools in the greater Boston area to cook breakfast and lunch for students. Working within the budget and resources the schools already have, Conrad creates more nutritious, more appealing meals for kids, a task he says is “really challenging.”

Underlying the Chefs program is the simple premise that food experts should be in charge of school food. “I honestly believe that you have to have the correct people in the correct positions,” Conrad said. School cafeterias are basically restaurants, he explained, and like restaurants, schools need culinary experts.

Chefs in Schools began in 2007 as a partnership between Project Bread, Mayor Thomas Menino, Boston Public Schools (BPS) and the Boston Public Health Commission. In its pilot year, Conrad cooked at the Lila G. Frederick Middle School in Dorchester as well as the Mario Umana Middle School Academy in East Boston.

In its second year, the program expanded to the Curley K-8 School in Jamaica Plain, and later, the Edison K-8 School in Brighton, the King K-8 School in Dorchester, the Higginson/Lewis K-8 School in Roxbury, TechBoston Academy and Boston Arts Academy in Fenway.

Conrad’s meals are cooked from scratch and use fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean meats, while reducing fat, salt and sugar. His menu features restaurant-worthy dishes like “chicken sandwich on whole-wheat bread with lettuce, tomatoes and pickles, served with sweet potato fries, vegetable soup and blueberries.”

And the program boasts demonstrable results. According to preliminary research conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health, students in the Chefs program eat more vegetables, throw away less uneaten food, and participate more in the school lunch program than students at control schools. Conrad himself notices the change. “When these kids are exposed to fresh foods,” Conrad says, “they really have been accepting of it … [and are] really positive about trying new things.”

Discrediting the conventional wisdom that kids won’t eat healthy food, the Chefs program highlights the potential for real changes in the city’s school lunch program.

 According to the Boston Public Health Commission’s “Health of Boston 2010” report, one-third of Boston Public School students are overweight or obese. At the same time, nearly 660,000 people in Massachusetts are at risk for hunger, according to Project Bread. Both conditions — obesity and hunger — are correlated with poverty.

Project Bread, an anti-hunger organization that spans the entire state, also sees Chefs in Schools as an answer to the twin problems of obesity and hunger.