Life after “Top Chef” doesn’t always lead to fame or fortune (whatever happened to past winners Hung Huynh and Hosea Rosenberg?), but two former contestants are making a name for themselves on the school lunch front. Chefs Spike Mendelsohn and Carla Hall, finalists on “Top Chef” seasons four and five, are participating in Michelle Obama’s latest initiative to combat childhood obesity, Chefs Move to Schools.
The program pairs chefs with public schools across the nation in an effort to educate and excite students about food and nutrition. Chefs will work together with teachers, administrators and cafeteria workers to promote healthy eating through performing cooking demos, planting school gardens, and eventually revamping school cafeteria menus to include nutritionally balanced, cost-effective dishes. So far, 990 chefs and 448 schools across the country have signed on to participate.
Hundreds of chefs, including Hall, attended June’s inaugural Chefs Move to Schools event at the White House. “The event was nothing short of moving,” she said. “To see that many chef coats and toques in one place was quite special.” Michelle Obama told chefs they are in a unique position to change kids’ eating habits: “You’ll be elevating the role of food in our schools … You know more about food than almost anyone — other than the grandmas — and you’ve got the visibility and the enthusiasm to match that knowledge. That’s really what’s key.”
Hurdles ahead for campaign to improve school food
Moved by the first lady’s remarks, Hall is considering adopting Mount Rainier Elementary School, a public school just outside of Washington, D.C. “The school is in the same community as the farmers market I’ve been participating in,” she said. “I’m hoping to connect the two in some way, even if it’s just small field trips to the market.” She also wants to start cooking classes for students and their parents, and work closely with food service professionals at the school to incorporate healthy dishes into the cafeteria menu.
But Hall is cognizant of the hurdles that lie ahead, including budgetary constraints and reluctance from the school. “I think the program will be effective if the chefs don’t move in like bulls in a china shop,” she said. “It’s going to take real team work between the school and the chef. Patience will be in order.”
Mendelsohn expressed similar concerns. “It’s difficult to start programs like this,” he said. “A lot of the time, the teachers, principals, and parents aren’t into it. They think it’s just some strange guy in a chef coat coming in and telling them what to eat.” To figure out how to counter that bias, White House assistant chef Sam Kass organized a meeting of ten D.C.-area chefs, including Mendelsohn, Todd Gray of Equinox, Jose Andres of Jaleo, Robert Wiedmaier of Brasserie Beck, and Cathal Armstrong of Restaurant Eve. They decided the best solution would be for chefs to adopt schools and integrate themselves into the school community. From there, the Chefs Move to Schools program was eventually born.
In deciding which school to adopt, Mendelsohn researched several charter schools before settling on KIPP DC, the local branch of the national Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP). KIPP is a network of 82 public schools across the country whose students are predominantly African-Americans and Hispanics living in underprivileged areas. There are seven KIPP schools in Washington.
Mendelsohn was impressed with the program’s commitment to its students, particularly at KIPP DC LEAP Academy, a pre-kindergarten through kindergarten school. “I met with the principal and teachers and they’re really passionate about their work,” he said. “But they didn’t have anyone on staff teaching about food, so they were excited to see me. Right then and there, I felt the chemistry and thought well, this is amazing.”
Over the past eight months, Mendelsohn has led healthy cooking demos for students, parents and teachers at LEAP Academy. Abraham Clayman, vice principal of LEAP Academy, said participants were excited about the demos and hoped to come back for more. “Chef Spike did an excellent job of highlighting students and making them feel great about trying new foods,” he said. “Exposure to new foods, new people, and new activities is good for our kids.”
Mendelsohn also planted his first “Good Stuff Garden” (named after Good Stuff Eatery, the popular D.C. burger joint that he owns) with students from KIPP DC Key Academy, Promise Academy and LEAP Academy. He hopes to be able to replicate his success and bring his program to KIPP schools in other states as well.
School lunches ‘let kids down’
Working with KIPP DC has shown Mendelsohn both the importance of the school lunch program and the need to change it. “Most kids don’t have the opportunity to have a good meal at home. They rely on the meals at school and I feel like we let them down,” he said. Right now, the government allots a mere $2.68 per meal and processed foods such as chicken nuggets, strawberry milk and frozen pizzas are readily available and heavily subsidized for schools. More than 31 million children across the country receive meals through the National School Lunch Program. And one in three children in the U.S. is considered overweight or obese.
Critics of school lunch reform argue that incorporating healthy dishes into cafeteria menus is futile if kids refuse to eat healthy food. But Mendelsohn disagreed with that notion. “Healthy food doesn’t necessarily mean steamed broccoli. You can take food that kids love and are used to, but make them healthy and better for you,” he said. Mendelsohn does just that in this month’s issue of Food and Wine, in which he offers healthy makeovers of kid-friendly dishes such as pizza, burgers and burritos.
Perhaps the most important factors for Chefs Move to Schools’ success will be collaboration and creativity from the chefs. “Everyone needs to jump on board for this to work — the farmers, the purveyors, the schools, the chefs, the government. If we have one missing link, change isn’t going to happen,” Mendelsohn said. Creativity will be needed to work within several existing constraints and inspire kids to eat healthy. Both Mendelsohn and Hall believe chefs are more than well prepared to deal with these challenges. “After all, that’s what we as chefs do on a daily basis — we play with our food,” Hall said.
Mackie Jimbo is a Washington, D.C.-based food writer who writes about her budget-friendly dining adventures at her website, The Unpaid Gourmet.