by Georgia Charter Schools Association
[Editor’s note: An Atlanta public charter school, Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School, decided to meet federal nutrition standards by supporting a “farm to school” lunch program that would not only “nourish students minds and bodies so that they might do their best work,” but would model healthy food choices. The school hired professional chef David Bradley, an ANCS parent, to oversee the program and saw a nearly 30% increase in the number of meals served this year! The lunch program was featured in a recent story in the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Here Chef Bradley shares what he’s learned about cooking for kids.]
By David Bradley
I’m seven months in to my first school year as chef and nutrition director at Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School (ANCS).
When a friend mentioned that ANCS was looking for a chef for a farm to school program, I was intrigued. Perhaps all of the study and work I’d done was preparing me not for a career in restaurants but rather for working in schools. I decided to try to establish a program that supports locally grown meat and produce and connects the dots on the food chain. I was attracted to the potential of influencing the taste and choices of my children and their peers, and hopefully many more beyond ANCS, by exposing them to delicious, nutritious food and helping them see where it comes from. I hope that our students will appreciate food as a central part of their life, not merely a convenience or commodity.
I’m trying to share my interest and knowledge of good eating with them, to introduce them to ingredients, preparations or cuisines they may not have tried before. I hope to have students growing some of the food we serve in gardens on campus, and to have students in the kitchen preparing food and serving each other. Being proud of their work and having results that are appreciated by the whole school community will help guide students’ food choices beyond what they eat for school lunch. I also hope that the kitchen can enrich their studies by developing curriculum on the cultural and historical influences on cuisine, the science of cooking, math skills for the kitchen, and the health implications of nutritional choices.
Our program is still getting off the ground, but the response has been very positive and our students, parents and teachers are all enthusiastic about having a well-made, fresh and nutritious meal program. We’ve supported a handful of local farms and purveyors, and I’m always looking for more opportunities to incorporate GA grown meat and produce. We bought a whole, fresh, pastured lamb from Gum Creek Farms for our shepherd’s pie in October. We featured produce from the wonderful Grant Park Farmer’s Market for vegetable plates in September and October.
Being the chef at an elementary and middle school has not been without its challenges as well. The greatest of these so far has been wading into the ocean of regulation that I was not subject to before coming to school nutrition. We’ve had to put the new meal pattern into practice and make changes on the fly to ensure that our almost entirely from-scratch food is compliant. Of course there are also big differences between feeding a relatively sophisticated midtown Atlanta clientele and kindergarten and first graders. While I knew that I wouldn’t be serving any more grilled octopus, curing my own trout roe for caviar, or finishing scallop crudo with lemon oil and sugar snap pea jus, getting myself to really think about food like a grade school student has sometimes been a challenge. I have a daughter in kindergarten at ANCS, and cooking for her at home has certainly helped, but dishes that I thought would be a hit were anything but. On our first farmer’s market veg plate, I had purchased some beautiful tomatoes and watermelons. I decided to make a very simple salad with the two of them and shaved parmesan cheese. I reckoned that everyone loves watermelon, and while this is true, my students weren’t interested in trying this combination.
Our menu continues to evolve, and is a mix of the most familiar dishes and items that are new to some. We now have enthusiasts of quinoa, plantains, pozole verde, and vietnamese basil rolls, among others. Getting to know the students both in the lunch line and in the classroom has been for me the most rewarding part of the transition so far. Even though I had many regular guests in restaurants I had worked in in years prior, I wasn’t feeding the same group five days a week and I was rarely privileged to such unfiltered feedback on what I was cooking. On balance it’s been a very warm reception, with students and faculty alike asking me for recipes and I get my share of high fives in the hallways.
David Bradley is Chef and Nutrition Director at Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School. He holds a B.A. in Computer Science from Emory University and has worked in restaurants for nearly a decade. From 2006-2012, he was the Chef de Cuisine at Ecco. From 2012-2014, he was the Executive Chef at Lure.
The views and opinions expressed on CharterConfidential are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency.