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From Local Farms to the School Lunch Table
By Stephanie Romaneiro, MS, RD

Imagine if a school’s lunch menu included peach-barbecue chicken, locally grown salad greens with homemade honey-lemon vinaigrette, and freshly cooked applesauce from regional apples instead of rubbery chicken nuggets, soggy French fries, and limp steamed veggies. For the students at Friends School Haverford outside Philadelphia, meals made with fresh, locally grown ingredients is the norm.

When Michael Zimmerman assumed his role as head of the school four years ago, he was determined to change the food landscape. Instead of providing students with microwaveable, packaged, and processed foods that were prepared in Brooklyn, New York, and driven to the Pennsylvania school, Zimmerman wanted to use environmentally friendly, locally sourced, nutritious foods from as close as the school’s own community garden and only as far as Lancaster, Pennsylvania (about an hour’s drive from the school).

“In our school’s environmental education program, we were talking about things like sustainability, locally sourced food, and nutrition, and there seemed to be a terrible disconnect between the curriculum as it related to food and what was happening when it came to be lunchtime at school,” Zimmerman says. “Through our public school district, we were offering families a processed, mass-produced, not-very-nutritious—if relatively inexpensive—lunch, so it was easy to conclude that we wanted to do and offer something different.”

Finding a Chef
What resulted was a search for a chef who’d share Zimmerman’s vision of providing healthful, tasty, local foods for the students and have a knack for working with kids. The search ended when Zimmerman found Chef Allie Hauptman.

Now in her second year with Friends School Haverford, Hauptman prepares fresh and nutrient-packed meals with ingredients from local Pennsylvania farms and gets the students involved in and excited about eating sustainably. For example, on one recent school day, the kindergarteners grated the cheese for homemade pizza, while some of the older students cubed 40 lbs of chicken to make chicken nuggets.

Hauptman routinely visits classrooms and teaches students how to blanch tomatoes and turn them into tomato sauce for the winter, dehydrate just-picked herbs so they’re available when gardens are bare, or transform the school’s supply of milk into creamy ricotta cheese. “Parents e-mail [me] for recipes at their kids’ request, and I’ve had students tell me about how they made one of the lunches at home,” she explains. “They’re definitely learning about new foods and how to prepare them.”

Community Lunch Menu Offerings
In 2012, the school began serving chef-prepared community lunches, which were offered one day per week but now are provided two days per week. Each week, fresh whole fruits and veggies along with eggs, meats, and dairy from nearby farms are delivered to the school within 24 hours of being picked or otherwise procured. Currently, the meals are offered free of charge to students and staff, and everyone can choose whether to participate in the program.

To gain students’ trust in trying foods such as roasted kale, baked sweet potato fries, vegetarian shepherd’s pie with lentils and mushrooms, or pear crisp with homemade granola, they’re encouraged to pack a lunch or snacks from home to supplement the community meal until they become more comfortable with what’s offered.

Lunches are served family style in each classroom, and even students who didn’t sign up to participate in the week’s community lunches are encouraged to taste the day’s offerings. “What this does is, it allows students to try new foods without pressure, and ultimately kids tend to participate,” Zimmerman says. The result: Most of the 150 students from preschool through eighth grade, along with the 35 teachers and staff, partake in the program.

Plant-Foods Focus
Hauptman focuses on creating balanced plant-based meals. One of the two weekly community lunches may include meat and with vegetarian sides. “I try to create plant-based menus while providing sufficient protein and heartier sides like biscuits or cornbread to make sure kids stay full through the afternoon,” she explains. “And if I can’t make it from scratch, I avoid putting it on the menu.”

That extends to sauces, condiments, and dressings as well. Recently, students wondered why their ketchup was orange instead of red—the result of using a homemade mix of red and yellow tomatoes. And rather than hiding veggies within each dish to trick students into eating healthful foods, Hauptman places them front and center: “They can try it and see if they like it, but if they’re tricked into eating it, they won’t learn to try new things or learn that they in fact like certain vegetables.”

Students tune in to their hunger and fullness cues by taking “just-right” portions, and they can eat as much or as little as they want with the option for a second helping. The administration has noticed that students are eating more slowly and mindfully since they routinely answer questions about the food after each community lunch—a mini survey of sorts. “They’re eating to really taste the food because they know they will be asked about it,” Hauptman says.

Pleased Parents
Students’ parents are equally happy with the community lunches at Friends School Haverford. “They’re asking for recipes and reporting that their kids are trying all sorts of new things at school that they haven’t been willing to necessarily eat at home,” says Andrea Dominic, director of admissions and advancement. “We call Chef Allie ‘the Kale Whisperer.’”

Logistically, parents also are excited about not having to pack lunches twice per week, knowing that their kids are getting nutritious, local meals. “The parent population is savvy about nutrition and eating sustainably, and is really ready for this,” Zimmerman says.

Next year, the school plans to extend the program to five days per week; however, not all meals will remain free of charge. To help offset the cost of the free hot community lunch twice per week, the school will offer two days of cold lunches as well as a pizza day for a nominal fee. And while the menus still are being developed, one thing is certain: Students at Friends School Haverford will continue to enjoy school lunches with nutritious, wholesome ingredients that have taken the shortest path from local farms to the school’s lunch tables.

— Stephanie Romaneiro, MS, RD, is a freelance writer and a dietitian for the YMCA and Shining Light Prenatal Education in Pittsburgh.