Wednesday, October 13, 2010

White House Chefs Join Chefs Move To Schools, Celebrate National School Lunch Week

Kass, Yosses, & USDA's Merrigan tout healthy eating, Farm to School sourcing & school gardens at DC events...
Tuesday was a very busy day for the White House chefs as they marked National School Lunch week in Washington, DC. Senior Policy Adviser for Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass and Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses are leading by example, and they made their first "official" Chefs Move to Schools visit to Harriet Tubman Elementary School in Columbia Heights. That's the school the White House has adopted so the chefs can participate in First Lady Michelle Obama's volunteer chef corps, which mates professional chefs with local schools. In the afternoon, there was another school visit, to Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter High School and Savoy Elementary School in Anacostia, which share a campus.  Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan was on hand for that visit, too. (Above: Yosses, left, and Kass, in action at Savoy/Marshall)

"We did breakfast and read books to the kids at Tubman," Yosses said, during a break in the action in the gym at Savoy/Marshall, which had been transformed into a combination Iron Chef stadium and mini farmers market. The schools have a very good food system in place; they are participating in the USDA's HealthierUS School Challenge, a campaign that recognizes schools for excellence in nutrition and physical education programs. Mrs. Obama has set a goal of doubling the number of participating schools this year, to 1,250.

>This week, Secretary Vilsack announced 19 new honorees in the HealthierUS School Challenge.

Four local chefs were competing to create a dish made from local foods; the winning creation would be served in the school lunch programs at DC public schools. It was a trifecta celebration: National School Lunch Week coincides with DC Farm to School Week and DC School Garden Week. Kass, Yosses and Merrigan lauded locally sourced foods at every opportunity. (Above: Kass speaks to the crowd of students and parents)

By 1:30 PM, Yosses was on his third kids n' food activity of the day. After his morning visit to Tubman, he'd zipped back to the White House to lead a different school group on a tour through the Kitchen Garden.*

"It's so much fun working with the kids," Yosses said. "It keeps you young."

There are now about 1,900 chefs across the country enrolled in Chefs Move, and the White House chefs' work at Tubman--including meetings with school administrators, parents, and faculty-- is being filmed, to be turned into a series of guidance videos for chefs participating in the project. Kass is the mastermind behind Chefs Move to Schools, and the creation of a video "toolkit" is an accompaniment to cookware toolkits that were recently donated by major cookware companies for schools participating in the project. 1,000 schools will receive the cookware; the donation from All Clad and other manufacturers is about $2 million worth of kitchen essentials.

>The First Lady launched Chefs Move to Schools on June 4 at the White House

On Tuesday at Tubman, Kass and Yosses read "Grandma's Garden" by Mercer Mayer and "The Vegetables We Eat" by Gail Gibbons to the kids, and spoke about the importance of healthy eating. Next week, they'll give a cooking demo in the auditorium, Yosses said.

Merrigan: The Farm to School movement is set to "explode"
For the afternoon event, the gym was decorated with harvest vegetables, donated by a farmer from Delaware. Kids were offered bags of apples they could choose from a table laden with loaded baskets of four different varieties, donated by Kilmer Farms in West Virginia. (Above: Merrigan watches chef Lauren Von der Pool cook during the competition)

Kass and Yosses, wireless microphones in hand, acted as MCs as the four chefs, paired with student sous chefs from Thurgood Marshall Academy, worked at cooking stations spread across the gym, complete with hot plates, blenders, cookware, and racks of knives. The teams had half an hour to create a dish centered on the donated local apples, with students and faculty watching and cheering them on from the gym risers. Kass and Yosses took turns explaining the culinary action.

During formal remarks, Merrigan discussed the importance of school gardens, and local farmers working with schools across America.

"It's time for this movement to explode," Merrigan said. "So I'm very excited about what's happening here."

>President Obama's proclamation on National School Lunch Week lauds farm to school sourcing

Merrigan noted the value of schools gardens, pointing out that kids are more likely to try different vegetables when they know how their food is grown, and adding that healthier diets make for higher academic achievement. But the Secretary was honest about the challenges of getting local foods into schools.

"Farmers selling foods directly to schools is a great idea, but as your school probably knows, it's very hard to do," Merrigan said. "It's about different ways food comes in--your school plans a menu, but then the weather doesn't cooperate, and the food comes in two weeks late. How does the school account for that?"

Many farmers don't want to process the foods they grow, Merrigan said. They're reluctant to wash and chop vegetables, and schools might not have personnel to do it, either. Schools often don't have places to store fresh foods, or kitchens to prepare them in, Merrigan said.

"It's a very complicated process, and so for that reason, USDA has put together a Farm to School Team, that's going around the country trying to document what works and what doesn't," Merrigan said. "When Congress finally passes the child nutrition act, which has farm to school elements, we'll be ready to rock and roll with this. Right now, all fifty states have a foothold in farm to school."

Merrigan left the podium after lauding the Obamas for leading by example.

"They're cooking and eating what they grow in their garden, and they're just a great, great, great role model," Merrigan said.

The President loves broccoli, and you should try some, too
During his own remarks, Kass paced in front of the cooking stations, Yosses at his side, as he described Mrs. Obama's Kitchen Garden to the crowd, and likened it to the students' own newly planted vegetable garden, which sits right beside a big slide and climbing set out on the playing field. It's an ultra urban garden: Beyond a chain link fence, across the street, the Anacostia Metro station and bus hub is loaded with buses coming and going all day. (Above: Kass takes questions as chefs cook during the contest)

"Who's cooked and eaten from the garden?" Kass asked, and dozens of hands flew into the air. When a student called out that his favorite veggie is broccoli, Kass and Yosses nodded approvingly.

"That's what I'm talkin' about," Kass said. "That's my favorite, too. And the President loves broccoli."

One lone brave child announced that she didn't have a favorite vegetable.

“C’mon, you’ve gotta give me something,” Kass said, holding the mic to the child.

"Okay, carrots, but I like junk food," the little girl said, suddenly turning into the equivalent of a heckler in the middle of a stand-up comedy routine. The adults--and Kass and Yosses--laughed.

"This is important," Kass said, not breaking stride. "I want everyone to think about trying new vegetables. It's healthier for you. How about spinach or tomatoes or eggplant?"

There was more laughter as the little girl made faces and shook her head at the mention of each veggie. Kass moved on, and introduced the four competing chefs and their student sous chefs.

As he chatted with chef Oliver Friendly of Eat and Smile Cooking and his sous chef Akasha Regin, who were making Spicy Apple Slaw with Chicken Sausage, Kass held up a bottle of Sriracha hot sauce for the crowd to see.

"Every chef uses this," Kass said. "It's my favorite. I have two bottles at home."

And the winner is...
The students sampled the dishes after the cooking was done, and cast their votes. The winning dish, made by Chef Tee of Salt and Pepper Chefs and his student sous chef: Apple & Cranberry Crisp, served with ice cream. It was the lone dessert creation, and heavy on sugar. The child voters upheld that old canard that kids will choose sugar, even when delicious vegetables are present (the Granny Smith apple this writer had at the event ranks as the #1 apple of the decade...). (Above: Kass and Yosses pose with the winning pair)

There was a bit of grumbling from the other competing chefs that a dessert had won, and some of the observing adults, even though the winning recipe contained whole grains and fruit.

"Of course they went for the ice cream and sweets," said one parent about the child voters. "It was the ringer."

Yosses was sanguine as one of the competing chefs complained to him that a dessert shouldn't have been in the contest mix.

"It was made with apples," Yosses pointed out, laughing. "And I might be the wrong guy to talk to about this."

More than 200 DC Public Schools will have farm to school lunches served this week, and there are more than two dozen student field trips to local farms scheduled. The Savoy/Marshall event was sponsored by DC Farm to School Network, and Whole Foods Markets donated much of the food, in addition to the local farmers who sent in their crops. (Above: Yosses chats with Thurgood Marshall students at the apple sampling table)

*The school tours of the White House Kitchen garden go on twice weekly, with Yosses, Kass or Executive Chef Cris Comerford leading about 40-50 kids at a time through the garden each Tuesday and Thursday.

*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama