Thinking and writing about food. Not always in that order.

Reinventing School Lunch: From Mystery Meat to Made-to-Order

In Cambridge, Profile on April 13, 2013 at 9:58 am

A look at how Cambridge, Massachusetts is making school lunch healthier

Healthy_School_LunchWhile the politics of healthier school food are being debated across the country, Chef Vincent Connelly is focused on the 300-plus students who will descend on the Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School cafeteria at 12:30 p.m. for second lunch.

With everything ready to go, including “Chef Vin’s barbecued chicken special,” a multi-station service area designed to resemble a college food court, and a well-trained staff, Connelly isn’t worrying about any debates.

As with many progressive political issues, Cambridge is ahead of the curve on school lunch. Having begun to tackle the problem of childhood obesity in the mid 1990s, the city’s slow but steady progress is built around joint efforts of the school department, public health commission, and other city agencies to address the complex relationship between exercise, screen time, and food.

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“There are are things you would eat and then there’s school food . . . But I don’t think that’s true anymore.”  — Alice Turkel

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In that cooperative effort, the lunch being served by Connelly and his staff at the city’s recently renovated high school is ground zero. Nutritionists employed by the public health department work with Connelly and the director of food services to taste test healthier recipes with students and then train staff throughout the district to prepare them.

Students are presented every day with many options for a reimagined school lunch that does not include deep frying or mystery meat but instead offers grab-and-go wraps and yogurt, a salad bar, three soups made from scratch, whole wheat pasta with meat or vegetarian toppings, roasted vegetables, made-to-order sandwiches, a daily chef’s special, and more.

“There are things you would eat and then there’s school food — a whole other category,” says Cambridge School Committee Member Alice Turkel, one of the city officials focused on improving the quality of food services. “But I don’t think that’s true any more.”

Turkel should know. Almost no one has been a more persistent influence on healthier foods in the Cambridge Public Schools than the six-term school committee member whose effort began in 1996 and includes time in elementary cafeterias taste testing healthier cereals with students.  After meeting Connelly at a conference in 2006, Turkel, served as matchmaker and helped lure him away from Brookline public schools to become consulting chef for the district’s “Tasty Choices” program. “The challenge is you have a very limited budget and a very diverse audience,” Turkel says. “How do you make food healthy, attractive, desirable and efficient?”

With a friendly face, short cropped graying hair and sweat pants, the lanky Connelly looks at home mixing noodle salad as he chats with lunch ladies. But not everything with Connelly is as typical as it appears.

Before signing on as consulting chef and head of the high school kitchen, the former University of New Hampshire history major co-authored six books on healthy cooking with titles such as The Pregnancy Cookbook and The Healthy Family Cookbook written with his wife Hope Ricciotti, a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. And the salad he’s mixing is vegetarian, made from scratch, uses whole-wheat pasta, and includes no trans fats.

Connelly’s nutritional philosophy is on display throughout the menus he creates and the ingredients he selects for the school. “Everything we do here is from scratch,” Connelly says. “We’re pushing for whole foods, nothing processed.” Rather than relying on USDA commodity chicken that has been converted to nuggets, Connelly orders 80 pounds of boneless chicken thighs from nearby Mayflower Poultry, which his staff coats with flour and cornmeal and then bakes. Like most schools, Cambridge manages the challenges of keeping food costs low by using USDA commodity products in its school lunches. But Connelly looks to receive those commodities in an unprocessed form: whole cut-up chickens, butter, ground beef. Roasted cauliflower with herbs and paprika began as 36 heads of whole vegetables earlier in the morning. The 6- to 7-gallons of soup served each day are also homemade, usually by Connelly.

As the face of healthier eating in Cambridge public schools, “Chef Vin’s Daily Special” is noted on the signboard in the cafeteria. The district also publishes Connelly’s recipes on the school’s website, including student favorites like roasted butternut squash, lentil soup, and baked sweet potato fries.

The progress from a “heat and serve” cafeteria to a kitchen where significant cooking takes place has been deliberately slow and has had its challenges. As Turkel notes, some kitchen staff were not hired to prepare food and were initially reluctant to take on more complex work. Contracts in Cambridge, as in other cities attempting to make similar changes, didn’t initially permit food preparation. “I started with really basic stuff. Here’s how you steam broccoli and serve it bright green. Half my job is trying to teach cooking and serving good food and the other half of the job is people skills,” Connelly says. “A lot of people are immigrants who cook good food at home and understand what good food is. They embraced it.” Two years after completion of the new high school kitchen, the food service staff, which includes some workers who have been with the school for 40 years, is adapting to the changes with more hours but little staff turnover.

Students also are adapting. “I am so impressed with kids. The kids are exposed to so many different things,” says Connelly, noting the popularity of bean and lentil dishes, vegetarian soups, greens such as kale and chard, and ethnic dishes such as doro wet, an aromatic Ethiopian chicken stew. Connelly’s menu also includes proven favorites such as taco bars and chicken strips. “I’m not making it adventuresome. I give them the food they’re familiar with, but am making sure that it’s healthy,” says the chef.

On a recent Friday, Connelly anticipated completing 650 transactions, up from just 200 per day before completion of the new high school cafeteria and its food court-like options.  By offering greater choice, improving the quality of the food, signing up every student eligible for free and reduced lunch, and attracting kids who are accustomed to leaving campus to buy lunch, Connelly eventually hopes to serve 800 to 1,000 lunches a day.

With that success may well come an increase in the only complaint that Connelly and Turkel report hearing regularly: long lines at the checkout.

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  1. Congrats to Cambridge and Chef Vin! This is a great accomplishment and the food looks and sounds fantastic! These are some very lucky students!

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