When I worked the election one year, my assignment was to sit in my kids’ intermediate school cafeteria and watch for monkey business. Given we live in Texas, I wasn’t surprised to see a little voter intimidation, suppression and some wacky Diebold malfunctions. What I was surprised and appalled to see was the utter crap the school system was providing for the kids to eat.
I remember school cafeterias as a place to get nutritious, balanced, albeit not gourmet, lunches. Those days are no more. The function of our kids’ health and well-being has been outsourced. Instead of balanced, in-house cooked meals, kids are offered single-serve pizzas, french fries, and chicken “nuggets,” all from commercial fast-food vendors. In addition to the low-value, high fat and high calories, the food is loaded with sodium.
It’s not just a problem in Houston, although we seem to reside in one of the worst offending cities. Over 30 percent of children in the United States are overweight and at risk of obesity or suffering from its effects. In Texas, a state with five of the top ten fattest cities in the nation according to a Men’s Health report for 2010, nearly 50% of fourth graders fall into an at-risk weight category. (Go ahead, click the report link to check out your city!)
Enter Recipe for Success Foundation
The brainchild of Gracie Cavnar, Recipe for Success Foundation works to combat childhood obesity by changing the way children understand, appreciate and eat their food. The foundation also works to educate and mobilize communities to provide healthier diets for children.
Part of the program includes the Seed-to-Plate Nutrition Education™, monthly in-school classes started in 2006, where students learn about healthy food by planting, harvesting, preparing and eating it. From there the program grew to after school, summer camp, parent classes and community outreach. Because research indicates that food attitudes and weight patterns are set for life by age eleven and that experiential learning presents the most successful model for changing behavior, the core of the program involves elementary school children.
What started with an idea from “one girl” (as Cavnar describes herself) has now grown to a professional staff and volunteer assistance from over 60 chefs, and has worked with over 12,000 children!
MacGregor Elementary School
One of the pilot schools schools for the RFS Seed-to-Plate Nutrition Education™ program in 2006, MacGregor Elementary is a Title I Magnet School, near Houston’s Museum District. First established in 1922 as Southmore Elementary, the school was later named for Henry F. MacGregor, a prominent Houston businessman, civic leader and national politician.
The school sits at the end of the block in an area of obvious gentrification. A few small single-family homes built in the the first half of the 20th century are intermingled with million-dollar condominiums and triplexes. The school appears to have once been open and airy. While brightly painted blue on the outside with a beautiful entryway mural, it is now completely fenced in, with locking institution-like gates separating walkways, hallways and classrooms. One assumes that this is designed to keep harm out, but it feels more as if it is to acclimate its pupils into being locked in. Students, dressed in white, navy and yellow shirts file quietly through the lockable gates to their next class flanked by their teacher.
As I walk through the brightly painted blue steel doors I wonder, is it just here? Or are all urban schools designed to feel like brightly-colored prisons? It is also dreary and rainy, so that may be coloring my perceptions.
The RFS classroom, though, is bright and cheerful. Chef Molly Graham and the students have just arrived when I get to the classroom. Volunteer Mary and Chef Randy Evans are waiting inside.
Chef Molly Graham moved from California to Houston where she started working with t’afia’s Chef Monica Pope as a Plum Easy catering chef. She began as an RFS part-time teacher and is now its Director of Operations. She’s a natural with the children and it’s easy to see she enjoys what she’s doing.
“I love the opportunity to expand the horizons of the palate and see the kids get excited about healthy food,” says Graham. She enjoys the challenge of helping kids overcome a fast-food lifestyle; teaching the children to use recipes as guidelines so they can experiment at home.
Chef Randy Evans joined the RFS Seed-to-Plate program at its inception as one of the original 24 advisory chefs. Tall, with a red beard and hair, he looks a bit like a young Kris Kringle. He adopted Ms. Zawacki’s fourth grade class at MacGregor and has been their RFS Chef ever since. Another natural with the kids, Chef Randy says he loves the RFS garden which inspired him to plant one for his restaurant HAVEN. One of Houston’s newest restaurants, HAVEN serves what Chef Randy calls Texas Regional cuisine with fresh, local ingredients. We haven’t yet visited, but are impressed by his “aggressively priced” wine list.
The Classroom Experience
The kids enter the classroom and immediately go to the sink to wash their hands. Groups of five or six then assemble at each of four prep stations. Volunteer Mary takes the first group; Chef Molly the second, with Chef Randy hopping back and forth between three and four. Ms. Zawacki comes in and sits down at a table to grade papers, trying to maintain her designated role as observer.
“It’s hard for me as their teacher to sit back and just ‘be here,'” she says, “because I want to make sure they listen and follow instructions.”
Difficult, indeed. A couple times the kids get a little rowdy, and Ms. Zawacki forgets about just being an observer.
One Wednesday a month, each of the four fourth grade classes participate in a class with each of four professional chefs. In addition to Chef Randy, MacGregor hosts chefs Monica Pope, Michael Kramer (previously at Hotel Icon’s Voice, and now with The Tasting Room) and Chara Gafford, owner of Urban Chef, Houston’s first fully hands-on non-vocational culinary school.
The class starts with a review of the previous class where the kids made Sunrise Smoothies. Then Chef Randy reminds the class of the five different tastes on the tongue (and here I thought there were only four!). He points to a visual aid on the wall which shows the areas of the tongue which sense sweet, salty, sour and bitter, the four commonly known in the West. Then he asks who remembers the fifth. A few hands go up.
“Umami” he asks the class to repeat. And one student repeats the easiest way he finds to remember: “Yo Mommy.” The Japanese word for “good flavor” umami describes the flavor common to savory foods such as meat, cheese, and mushrooms. Chef Randy describes it as “a little bit of everything.”
In the center of each prep station is a plate with five small serving cups, each representing one of the five tastes. “No double-dipping” Chef Molly reminds them, as each child uses a tiny plastic tasting spoon to sample; honey for sweet; unsweetened cocoa for bitter; lemon juice for sour; vinegar for salty; and soy sauce for umami.
Then it’s time to make today’s dish; 1-2-3 salad. The first step is to make the salad dressing. Several ask about “Ranch.” But today they’re making their own umami vinaigrette. Chef Randy explains how it all starts with “oil and vinegar” that must be emulsified. He explains emulsification:
“It’s like taking two arch enemies and making them friends,” he says, using a “piano” whisk. He explains the name, “because it has seven or eight wires which are like the strings on a piano.”
As the kids take turns whisking the oil and vinegar, and then adding a bit of mustard and honey, fragrance fills the air. So unlike the sickening aroma of fried foods, one can pick out the individual elements as they are added to the mixture. I catch a whiff of black pepper. Then the other ingredients are mixed in: fresh spinach and greens, dried cranberries, a bit of quinoa, some walnuts and almonds. Chef Molly double checks with Ms. Zawacki to see if any of the children has nut allergies before supervising the addition of the nuts. They add a bit of feta.
“Remember the recipe is just a guideline,” she says. “If you don’t have feta at home, don’t ask your Mom to go out and buy feta, just another kind of cheese.”
When each group’s salad is prepared, one of the team members serves the others and each takes his or her place at a long table covered with a blue checkered table cloth. Chef Molly serves each water from a clear plastic pitcher. One child bows his head, folds his hands in front of him and says a silent prayer. Then it’s time for the toast.
Everyone raises a glass, and each says in unison, “Bon Appetit!”
More About Recipe for Success Foundation
Recipe for Success is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) charity organization formed in 2005. It was planned, funded and launched in Houston, Texas with the support of the Mayor of Houston, the Houston Superintendent of Schools, a broad coalition of research and health institutions and hundreds of dedicated volunteers.
The Foundation depends entirely on donations from individuals, foundations and corporations to maintain programs in Houston elementary schools and community centers; to develop new curriculum that celebrates healthy eating through cooking and gardening activities for elementary aged students and their families; and to mentor the deployment of the Seed-to-Plate Nutrition Education™ program in schools across the country. You can learn more about Recipe for Success Foundation in the video below.
To donate, volunteer or otherwise get involved, visit their website at Recipe4Success.org