EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 1, 2012

Culinary surprises - good ones - in the school cafeteria

Chefs work to create healthier, tastier meals

By Yadira Betances

LAWRENCE — Spinach salad, minestrone soup, whole grain pizza topped with low fat cheese, vegetables and turkey pepperoni, corn mixed with black beans, brown rice and beans, chicken in sauce, and watermelon.

That was the fare offered at Lawrence High School Wednesday prepared by chefs Guy Koppe and Kirk Conrad of Project Bread.

The feast was part of the Chefs in Schools Initiative - a partnership between Project Bread, the anti-hunger organization and Lawrence public schools.

"It's very critical for us that the students be exposed to healthy food," said Sarah Cluggish, Chefs in Schools program manager.

"Eating healthy is important at every level, especially in high school because their taste is already set," Cluggish said of students. "But, we're seeing that they are willing to try something new."

One day a week, Conrad, chef in residence with Project Bread and Koppe, administrative chef, work with kitchen staff at Lawrence High planning a healthy meal made from scratch using fresh herbs, fruits and vegetables.

"It's great because everyone needs to make sure they're eating healthy and what we're trying to do here is that they're enjoying their food at school," Koppe said.

Lawrence is one of four school systems in Massachusetts Project Bread is working with after receiving a $1 million grant over four years from Arbella Insurance Group Charitable Foundation. The other cities are Salem, Chelsea and East Boston.

Cluggish said Lawrence was selected because of the large number of students eligible to get their school lunches for free or at a reduced price.

Full price lunch in the elementary schools ranges from 75 cents to $1, and full priced lunch at the high school is between $1.25 to $1.50.

"Secondly, Lawrence has a strong food service director and program that we were able to partner with and make sustainable changes," Cluggish said.

With Lawrence having one of the state's highest obesity rates among youngsters, Ann Marie Stronach, Lawrence Public Schools nutrition services director, said the program is important.

"It's huge because it promotes lifelong eating habits and it helps us incorporate that mission statement in a manner that they will eat it," Stronach said.

In addition to Lawrence High, the chefs during the week go to the Arlington, Breen, Bruce, Frost, South Lawrence East and Leahy schools.

The Chefs in Schools program comes in the heels of the new nutritional standards for school meals implemented in the 2012-2013 academic year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture which requires the use of low sodium, whole grains, fruits and vegetables be included to school lunches.

"We've been trying to keep with that all along," Stronach said. "A program like this helps us figure out what the kids are willing to try."

Jhornet Baez, a senior in the Business, Management and Finance High School at Lawrence High, likes the new lunches.

"It was delicious and better than what we had before because it wasn't greasy," Baez said.

Ariel Rodriguez and Manuel Mercado, also seniors in the Business, Management and Finance High School, said they liked the wide range of choices.

"Teachers always talk to us about nutrition and now the school is providing that," Rodriguez said.

Project Bread and the school nutritional services department are working with Groundwork Lawrence and the Humanities and Leadership Development High School at Lawrence High to plant herbs and vegetables that can be use in school lunches.