Since I joined the Food Revolution, I've been to too many meetings regarding the situation of cafeteria food in the Los Angeles area, the second largest school district in the States.
I'm tired of hearing that LAUSD improved their menu knowing very well that by serving half a million meals a day prepared in a centralized station, all the kids get served at school is little more than bad airplane food.
It seems that there's too much money involved for the big players in the picture to radically change the way we feed our future generations at school.
But what's the alternative? What is the model that I think will work better?
Well, I don't have to imagine it, I don't have to dream it.
That model is here already and it's working and yes! It's a revolution, baby!
It's happening now in Pasadena, Calif. at Maranatha High School (a private school) where a few months ago my old friend Chef Jason Franciso (who was trained at the Le Cordon Bleu and worked as a chef in various restaurants for several years) was hired to run the cafeteria -- a beautiful, big, fully functioning cafeteria that for many years had been serving a solid and familiar menu of frozen food reheated, the usual litany of burgers and mac and cheese from a box, frozen pizza and chicken nuggets.
When Jason came in, the first thing he did was to donate to a local shelter all the frozen food left in the freezer room. He then preceded to buy fresh, local produce (nothing that comes farther than five hours from the school). He started to teach the cafeteria staff how to prepare great recipes from scratch. He introduced new, exciting items to the menu.
And what happened?
Well, the attendance in the cafeteria skyrocketed almost overnight once news about the new menu went around the campus. Kids now run to line up to get their food. They ask about recipes they don't know and want to try them -- they are curious, adventurous, happily fed.
I witnessed a typical lunch a couple of months ago and it was such a glorious celebration of food.
"Chef Jason," a smiling girl asked while waiting in line with her friend, "What was that pasta I liked so much a couple of days ago?"
"Carbonara," Jason replied.
The girl appeared satisfied: "I got to tell my mom!"
But not only are the kids happy, the school's food suppliers are ecstatic because more kids means more food and more food means more money for them.
The staff that works for Jason is learning how to cook and a visit to the kitchen finds them happily involved in the food preparation. They are, in effect, being trained to become future chefs themselves.
Kris Dreyer, Maranatha High School's CFO, is also in heaven. Not only kids and their families love the new food but the cafeteria now (serving only breakfast and lunch) makes a hefty profit (the kids pay for their food, which now costs less than before), a profit, he said, any restaurant would be happy to get every month.
But that's not all, listen to this! They noticed that the kids would take pictures of the food and send them to their parents so now Jason has a TO-GO menu for families: it's restaurant food for cafeteria prices. Brilliant! Have you ever asked your children to bring home the meatloaf from their school cafeteria? I didn't think so!
And there's more.
Sysco corporation, in urgent need of a healthy food makeover, is now donating most of the fresh food.
Body Armor, a healthy energy drink company, is using the cafeteria to test their beverages at discounted prices.
Jason and I toured the fabulous Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena a couple of days ago to recruit students for the cafeteria. Chefs in school cafeterias? Somebody pinch me.
Jason is also organizing cooking lessons for kids and their parents, he's preparing a cook book, he now posts the menu online and he's working on an app. I've seen all of this and it's all beautiful!
So is it doable?
Is it possible to feed our kids better food spending the same amount we are spending now?
Jason's experience proves that not only it's doable but it could also be also profitable for all the players involved: schools, suppliers, healthy food producers trying to familiarize kids with their brands (why should the devil always have the best tunes?).
If we decentralize the process of making food and make the decision to go back to functioning kitchens in schools, we can create new, quality jobs, help grow a healthier generation and maybe even save money!
No, it's not a dream, it's a revolution and it's happening now! Are you ready?