The World of Chef Jorge
It's a daunting task: Make New York City's school lunches healthful--and fun to eat
The kitchen at Long Island City High School is bustling. It's almost always lunchtime for some of the school's 3,800 students. Cooks in aprons and hairnets ready pans of shepherd's pie, curried chicken wraps, rows of apples, bananas, yogurt, and chocolate skim milk for the hungry hordes marching down the cafeteria line. Kitchen staffers refill the lettuce, beans, and other selections at the salad bar. Popular snacks include "pineapple push-ups" --individually wrapped pieces of fruit--and oat bran pretzels.
Hamburgers and hot dogs are still available, but the buns are made from whole wheat flour. Lunch selections often include vegetarian chili; chicken teriyaki with stir-fried vegetables, corn, and black bean salad; or lasagna with whole wheat noodles. The beverages are water, milk, and 100 percent fruit juice.
Welcome to Chef Jorge's world. Jorge Leon Collazo, the first executive chef of the New York City schools, has been on the job for one year this month. In that year, the nutritional quality, taste, presentation, and popularity of the food served in New York's schools--the largest district in the nation--have improved dramatically. Chef Jorge, as he is called by everyone, was hired to put into practice new district regulations, adopted in February 2004, aimed at curbing childhood obesity and improving nutrition for the city's 1.1 million schoolchildren.
Fruit and salad. Since then, he has revamped the menus, lowering fat, sugar, and salt in recipes; substituted whole grain breads, pastas, and cereals for the white stuff; and eliminated some products containing artery-clogging trans fats. He has added more fresh fruit and salad bars, despite the fact that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National School Lunch Program will only reimburse schools for one vegetable and fruit choice per student. "The salad bars are an extra," Collazo says. "But kids like salad bars, and one of our key focuses is to promote greater consumption of plant-based foods."
The innovations have raised demands, and not just on cooks in the city's Office of School Food, which hired Collazo and endorses the changes. They have also increased requirements for the food suppliers, whom Collazo is asking to reformulate products and rethink what they sell. As a result, New York City's efforts could open doors for other school districts that are also demanding healthier food choices for their students. And here's the best part: The kids seem to love the switch from typical fare to cafeteria haute cuisine.
Currently, however, few schools offer healthier food to students. More than 76 percent of schools sell soft drinks and sweetened fruit drinks, but fewer than half offer bottled water. Fewer than 15 percent sell low-fat or nonfat yogurt, and fewer than one third order skim milk. Only 25 percent of schools say they've reduced fats and oils in recipes.
Increasingly, however, parents, school officials, and nutritionists want school food overhauled. "Young people do a lot of eating at school, and it's a very important time in their lives when they're deciding about lifestyle choices," says Martha Kubik, a University of Minnesota school food researcher. "We need to be providing a food environment where there is an opportunity to choose healthier alternatives." A recent survey by Kubik of more than 800 parents and teachers of middle school students showed that 90 percent believed healthier snacks and beverages should be available. But only a third felt school lunches were healthful, and most said lunches should offer more fruits and vegetables. As a result, initiatives to limit junk food and add fruits and vegetables have been enacted or proposed in several states.