Chefs prepare nutritious food at this South Bronx charter school

Imagine a school where healthy, delicious food is served, food that is so good the teachers elect to eat there with the children. Then, imagine that this food costs less than the pre-packaged meals served at nearby schools. The Family Life Academy is a small charter school in the Greater New York City area located in the nation’s poorest congressional district where 90% of the students qualify for free breakfast and lunch. It’s been more than a year since Chef Bennet Fins and his staff began serving freshly prepared foods for breakfast and lunch. For many of the children, this is the major or only source of food they get during the day.

There are no boxes of Cocoa Puffs or cartons of strawberry milk here. Breakfast cereal is granola prepared by the staff each day, and it is accompanied by fresh fruit and yogurt. Lunch choices include the wonderful dishes that reflect the chef’s training at the French Culinary Institute, including roasted chicken, marinated steak, lightly cooked vegetables of all types, whole grains, plus soups and salads. Fresh fruits are served for dessert. There are no nuggets or fries, no prepackaged microwave meals, and no chocolate milk, in fact, water is the beverage of choice. Some of the herbs and vegetables are grown in school gardens, tended by the students.

The healthier food actually costs less!

There are only 386 children in the school, which runs from kindergarten through the 7th grade, but this is a large enough number to give Chef Fins the buying power to keep costs down. Previously, the school spent $2.82 for each meal of packaged, processed lunches. But that figure dropped to only $2.60 after the change to real food. An unexpected bonus is the health benefits the staff has seen for themselves. Two of the adults lost 80 pounds each eating the school food, and one teacher lost 100 pounds!

Wasting food, using food

This 19th century painting, “the Gleaners,” depicts peasants combing over fields that have been harvested, finding food that was missed after farmers gathered their crops. In years past, the option of wasting food was unknown. But as memories of depression era poverty faded from the American psyche, and as the disposable income of more families rose, one of the things that was increasingly being disposed of was food.

This unfortunate phenomenon is documented in Jonathan Bloom’s book, American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of its Food (and What We Can Do About It). But as the title indicates, he also offers creative solutions. Supermarkets, natural food markets, and restaurants are increasingly donating unsold food to soup kitchens and food pantries.

DC Central Kitchen

A program developed in the nation’s capital in 1989, is salvaging both food and lives. DC Central Kitchen gives former convicts a second chance by training them in culinary arts and other jobs in food service. They travel to the farms in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley to buy fresh foods that might have otherwise been discarded because of bruising or because their size was not ideal. (For example, eggs that are considered too small to sell are routinely discarded.) The cost saving is phenomenal, with the program buying the food for 10 to 30 cents on the dollar. The growers benefit as well.

Good food for schools

This fresh, nourishing food is brought to the DC Central Kitchen where it is turned into delicious meals for thousands of the city’s school children, as well as area charities, and for their upscale catering business. The children benefit as do the culinary arts trainees, who have an excellent job retention record. In this program, lives are being salvaged along with food. For more information, visit their site at
Dr. Susan Rubin, healthy food activist, noted, “It’s rare that I see a school, especially a public school, that actually serves food that’s good. I get physically sick just looking at it because it makes me sick that kids are eating this processed c**p.”

Finding help for the public school kitchens

lunchlady1After journalist Julia O’Malley published an article about the sorry state of food in Alaska’s schools. A reader wrote in to described her experience that could help address one of the problems schools now face:

“Many years ago while my youngest child was in Head Start, I worked in the school kitchen in Tampa, Florida. Any mom who was on public assistance and didn’t have a job was asked to work in the school’s kitchen — for pay — and to be trained.”For breakfast we turned out hot biscuits, eggs, and sausage. There were hot loaves of bread made for lunch, with meat, vegetables and milk; and we served homemade desserts of fruit or pie or cake. The cooks also prepared the meals for the faculty.”



I am 73 now and I will never forget the experience I had in the kitchen. It was a wonderful way to teach moms how to feed their families healthy food.”lunchlady2

Moms cooking fresh hot food, working the same hours their children are in school, could be a solution to some of the problems we face today.