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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

Many students attending Boston Public Schools come from low-income families who struggle to put quality food — if any — on the table each day. But these same students, more than 74 percent of the 56,000 students at BPS, qualify for free or reduced-price school meals. If schools offer the quality, nutritious food that kids may not be getting at home, it can go a long way in staving off childhood hunger and obesity, their logic goes.

But Conrad doesn’t need statistics to understand the extent of childhood hunger in Boston. “I am right there looking at the kids everyday,” he says.

Many students go to him after mealtimes asking for seconds because they are so hungry, he said. Childhood hunger, he believes, is something “we have to take seriously as a community.”

Esteniolla Maitre, a student at Boston Arts Academy, agrees. Maitre grew up in Mattapan, where she said food deserts are abundant. But the 12th-grader doesn’t think there should be food deserts in schools, either. She said that schools help “pick up slack to help families.”

Chef Conrad, she pointed out, “creates miracles” with his food, boosting school lunch participation, inspiring students to be healthier, and preparing dishes kids actually enjoy eating.

For Peter Li, another student at Boston Arts Academy, the Chefs program did exactly this. During his freshman year, Li ate regular school lunches, but he said they were “bland” and “dry” — “it wasn’t appealing.”

The poor quality of the food drove Li to look elsewhere for lunch, and he spent his second year of high school eating chips and soda bought from a nearby CVS. Soon after, Li was suffering from inflammation in his stomach and severe acid reflux. While he can’t explicitly link these health problems to the junk food he was eating, he knows “it had something to do with it,” and decided to get serious about nutrition, and demand his school provide better options in the cafeteria.

After getting Conrad into his school’s cafeteria, Li was finally enjoying healthy food in schools. “The health problems I have wouldn’t have happened,” he said, if he had been eating this kind of food all along. “I don’t want what happened to me to happen to others.”

Although the Chefs program no longer exists at Boston Arts Academy, Maitre said Conrad “motivated kids” to be healthier and to get that quality food, with or without the help of BPS.

And this is exactly the goal Conrad had hoped for.

“I’d really like to see this continue forward and gain momentum,” he said, and for “awareness of school food, health, weight issues to come to the forefront.”