Chef Andrea Cavaliere of Cecconi's West Hollywood had just gotten back from DC in June when he sat down for a talk with Evan Kleiman of KCRW's Good Food radio show. First Lady Michelle Obama had invited him to the White House along with with hundreds of other chefs across the nation to recruit them for her initiative "Chefs Move to School." The initiative encourages chefs to "adopt" a local school to plant an edible garden, give demonstrations on cooking and nutrition, and inspire children to learn more about what they eat. He discussed Obama's program with Kleiman and also put out a call to Los Angeles parents, teachers, and principals: Cavaliere and Cecconi's was looking for a school to partner with.
Principal Bernadette Lucas was driving in her car listening to NPR when her ears perked up. Lucas looked up Cavaliere's restaurant, found his number, and introduced herself and her school, Melrose Avenue Elementary (LAUSD). She remembers, "He was so sweet to talk to me. He came and visited the school, met with me and some of the parents, and that's the beginning of the relationship."
Michelle Obama's initiative was a no-brainer for Cavaliere. He had lived and worked as a chef at the historic Cecconi's in London and was inspired by Chef Jamie Oliver's movement to reform school lunches in England. "I saw this happening in the UK because I had been living and working there for nine years. It's a trend, and it's a good thing." According to the USDA, there are "more than 31 million children participating in the National School Lunch Program and more than 11 million participating in the National School Breakfast Program." With rising childhood obesity and diabetes rates, public school lunch and nutrition programs have been fingered as both a cause and a solution to the nation's widening waist size. Cavaliere credits his decision to get involved to his inspiring visit with Michelle Obama at the White House. "I went to Washington, and afterwards I knew I definitely wanted to adopt a school."
Besides sponsoring a salad bar and giving courses on nutrition and cooking, Cavaliere plans to go a step further than Obama's program by sourcing his restaurant's herbs from Melrose Avenue Elementary, making the garden self-sustaining. Principal Lucas said excitedly, "He told us what the restaurant needed, we're growing them, and they're going to buy them from us. And that money will be put right back into our nutrition, gardening program, and salad bar."
Woolly Pocket also played a part in sponsoring the school's garden. Co-founder Miguel Nelson was on hand for the event, explaining that their "living wall system" allows schools to "garden on their fences and on their walls so they don't have to give up playground space." Nelson also noted that "it's actually also a really fun way for kids to garden since it puts the plants right at eye-level." Their modular felt pockets now line the chain link fence on the east side of Melrose Avenue Elementary school. Bunches of chives, basil, eggplant, and even strawberries were already bursting out from the peacock-blue pockets. Underneath the wall of vegetables and fruits were two wooden planter boxes. Some of the shoots were already beginning to bud little green tomatoes.
Cecconi's West Hollywood is owned by SoHo House Group, which has other restaurants in Miami, New York, the UK, and Berlin. Cavaliere mused that perhaps SoHo House's other properties would follow his lead after they see success at Melrose Avenue. "What I want to do is inspire other chefs to do the same, as well as other schools. At the end of the day, it all makes sense. The kids are having fun, they're learning, and they're eating well. It's all about them."