02/23/2012 11:22 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Children Abandoned in the Cafeteria


Once a month I host a kids-make-your-own-lunch event at Grant Elementary School in Santa Monica, CA.

It's an event orchestrated by Harriet Fraser and myself, born at one of Jamie's Oliver's food revolution call to action meeting.

Both Harriet and I are passionate about what our kids eat at school and we both live in the Santa Monica area so we do what we can. It's a drop in a ocean but it's something.

The program is simple: we got a local Whole Foods Market to donate the fresh produce and, once a month I set up camp in front of the school's entrance (Friday are late start days) and help the kids (who bring their own containers) make their own lunch with fresh, appetizing ingredients.

I can't really have the children "cook" the lunches but so far I was able to present quinoa salad, pasta salad, whole wheat grilled veggie wraps and many more recipes always accompanied with a fresh fruit salad and, sometimes, little sweet treats. I line up a multitude of ingredients all prepped and let the kids go to town. They have a great time assembling the lunch they want with the ingredients they like. I always explain to the kids what the ingredients are and encourage them to use as much fresh produce as they can.

Last Friday I was challenged by the lovely principal of the school who always stop by to sample the menu, to prepare something American in honor of president day.

As I'm working closely with Whole Foods Market to promote the switch to whole wheat I decide to provide whole wheat sandwiches with turkey and fresh and grilled vegetables (or simply veggie sandwiches for the non meat eater), a simple fruit salad and one-bite mini pumpkin and apple pies (I roasted some pumpkin and some apples and puree them with cream cheese and filled up pastry bags with the mix. I baked mini pies crust and the kids had a ball squeezing the mix into them).

The event was, as always, a success, the highlight was when my favorite kindergardeners came in group and we had a ball making sandwiches for everyone!

In the past I told Harriet that she should find a group of parents alternating themselves to handle the program, "No need for Chef Gino the celebrity chef," I joked, noting that, after all the cafeteria offers already a fresh salad buffet every day .

Harriet answered that they need my personality to get the kids involved and that the kids don't seems to care much for the salad bar at school while they love the food I prepare.

I take a compliment when I can and I know that years of experience working with kids makes me an energizing force behind the tables as the kids cook away but then I realize that there was something more behind Harriet's statement.

In Italy (as I mentioned before in another blog) eating at school is handled differently than in the States.

When time to eat lunch come, all the kids sit together and the teachers take the food around and talk to the kids about what they are about to eat, they encourage them to eat and try different things. Nobody is forced but kids love stories and knowing what they are about to eat and where it comes from or what good it does once we ingest it makes the food more appetizing.

In America, kids are left pretty much by themselves in the cafeteria, the teachers are somewhere else and it's not the job of the cafeteria staff to encourage kids to eat.

Kids are abandoned in the cafeteria, left alone, even at a early age, to make choices. No other period of the school day is handled like that, even recess is supervised by the teachers. It isn't hard to understand why they wouldn't eat or even look at certain items under this conditions. It would be like the math Teacher dropping a math text book on the desk and then go and have a coffee break hoping that the kids will learn algebra by themselves.

With the food revolution pushing for better food in cafeterias making progress and new and healthier items being introduce daily on the schools menu, I urge the school system to consider placing a teacher (maybe in rotation) around the cafeteria to introduce the kids to the food they're about to eat, to encourage them to taste and enjoy what's served. Nobody should be forced into eating something but we all know that left by themselves kids would go for the familiar rather than try the new.

Let's help our kids make the right choices, let them experience new flavors and new tastes. The path toward a healthier life style starts with the knowledge of different foods. After all, we are what we eat.