Kids at Stevenson School in Carmel, California, might not know they’re at the forefront of a new trend in school lunches, but they do know that they like it.
The other day, when lunch was barbecued chicken with green beans, roasted potatoes, cantalope and a cookie, there were rave reviews from students and staff alike.
“I loved the flavor of the chicken, and the cookies were really sweet,” said Ajda, a sixth-grader. “The green beans were yummy,” chimed in her friend Lily, also in sixth grade.
Classmate David, who opted for the vegetarian meal of edame, potatoes and green beans, concurred: “Everything was fantastic,” he said.
The private school’s lower grades, kindergarten through eighth, is trying something new in school lunches – parents are now ordering the lunches from a local catering company, which serves them at the school each day.
Aqua Terra Culinary isn’t serving up mystery meat, either. Each meal is made from fresh, organic ingredients with much of it coming from local farms and farmers’ markets.
The meals are also healthy, without processed ingredients, corn syrup, or excess sugar and salt, and are proportioned correctly for children – K-3 students get an appropriate serving size, while older kids and adults get a bit more. (School staff can also place orders.)
The meats are hormone- and antibiotic-free; milk being served is also organic.
Although most schools don’t have a catering service, the idea of going back to the basics of school lunches is an idea gaining new acceptance after decades of processed meals. Meals prepared from scratch using fresh produce are now making a reappearance in cafeterias across the country.
“This went incredibly well,” said Aqua Terra owner/culinary chef Dory Ford on the first full-service lunch day. “We’ll be able to much more effectively streamline this as it goes on.”
Ford is not only providing healthy organic fare, but he’s also working to make it as sustainable and with as little waste as possible – just like in the good old days of school lunches.
Although Ford isn’t himself a dad, he’s a passionate advocate for sustainable food, and he points out what a difference a healthy lunch can make for schoolchildren. Ford believes in using locally grown items, a practice honed by his years working as executive chef at Monterey Bay Aquarium and most recently at Ventana Inn & Spa in Big Sur.
Now he’s applying those principles through Aqua Terra, launched last year.
“After a good lunch, they can focus, learn and pay attention in class,” he said. “A lot of behavioral problems and allergies arise from eating processed foods.”
Ford and his crew prep and cook the food at Aqua Terra’s kitchen, making it all from scratch – even today’s barbecue sauce on the chicken – and load it onto individual trays that slide into custom-built metal containers that are transported to campus. The containers are wheeled onto the school grounds prior to lunchtime.
Mario Mabalot, head of the school lunch program for Aqua Terra and former chef at Santa Catalina School, said that the idea is to have as many reusable components as possible. The trays and cutlery aren’t throw-away items, but will be used again and again.
When lunch is over, the trays are loaded back into the containers with the uneaten food still on them. That’s so Ford and crew can see what the kids are eating and what they aren’t, so Aqua Terra can fine-tune the menus.
The unique school lunch program started after Ford spoke to classes at the school about sustainable living and reducing one’s carbon footprint. He was later approached by a member of the parents’ association about providing lunches at the school. There was no official hot lunch program there, although the parents’ association was having lunch brought in once a month for students.
Ford began working with the parents and the school several months ago to figure out what the needs were and how to provide a daily lunch, but he went even a step further than that.
He’s seizing the opportunity to make lunch a teachable moment, and is helping the school to foster such things as garden boxes outside each classroom, so that students will have the experience of growing their own edibles.
“This way, they start to understand where food comes from,” he said. “I’m not just feeding them lunch.”
It’s also the beginning of healthy habits, particularly needed in a day and age when childhood obesity is a real problem. Developing a taste for vegetables and fruits, and not for fast food, helps kids make better eating decisions.
The menus are also adjustable for kids with special needs, such as those who are vegetarians or have food allergies.
Principal Molly Bozzo said having healthy lunches is something everyone appreciates, as well as the ease of ordering. Parents go online to see the menu and order lunches. Instead of the school contracting with Aqua Terra, contracts are actually between each individual family and the catering company.
“I am really excited by the program and inspired by Dory,” Bozzo said.
On the first day, Aqua Terra served 72 lunches – to almost half of the 195-member student body at the lower school – and Ford predicts this number will rise as the word gets around to families.
Ford is also looking to expand his lunch operation to other schools, even public schools, as time goes on. “I’m hoping it serves as a model,” he said.
“If I can spark change, so much the better.”
Interviews with Dory Ford, Molly Bozzo and Mario Mabalot, September 2010