At a recent dinner at the trendy ThreeOhSix supper club in Tribeca, chef Daphne Cheng prepped zucchini bisque and healthy creme brulee as usual. Except on this night, the profits from the dinner service were skipping her business and going directly to the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food.
The charity, which works to bring nourishing, plant-based lunches and food education into schools, also counts Joy Pierson, owner of the popular Candle Cafe and Candle 79 restaurants, as its chairperson. And it’s just one of many organizations working to make school lunches healthier, which renowned chefs are rallying behind in a huge way.
Wellness in the Schools’ list of chef partners reads like a Food Network show meets Michelin Guide—from Alex Guarnaschelli to Gramercy Tavern’s Michael Anthony—mainly because of the stellar recruiting of its executive chef, Bill Telepan. The Edible Schoolyard Project, which expanded its focus on school gardens to include making lunches healthier, was founded by Chez Panisse chef Alice Waters. Jamie Oliver practically built his career on the concept.
So why all of the interest in changing the lunch line from a selection of processed meats and sugary snacks to whole food choices?
Some of the credit, at least, is owed to Michelle Obama, says Wellness in the Schools’ Reana Kovalcik. “A lot of people have been doing this work for a long time on the ground, but [her] voice reached nationally and really put this issue on the agenda,” Kovalcik says, of the First Lady’s influence. “Giving this a national vision was really important.” Wellness in the Schools, for example, was invited to be a part of Mrs. Obama’s Chefs Move to Schools task force in 2010, increasing the organization’s visibility.
And for chefs looking for a cause they can get behind, their passion for food is a natural fit.
“The chefs eat with the kids, taste food with them, talk with them, and follow that up with nutrition and culinary education,” Kovalcik says. (Sounds like just another day at the “office.”)
This year, the healthy school lunch movement, even got its own documentary, Lunch Hour, created by James Costa.
Costa speaks to chef personalities like Bill Telepan and Rachael Ray in the film, and he says that while he was initially inspired to make it because of the awful food he saw being served in the South Bronx, he was inspired by the many people and initiatives he found making changes around the country.
Still, he’s cautious. As he says in the film, lots of people are helping to make changes, but it’s not over. “The last thing I want is for someone to watch this and think it’s all better, I don’t have to do anything.” So far, that doesn’t seem to be the case. At least not in the culinary world. —Lisa Elaine Held