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.
But few school districts have comes as far as fast as New York City. And much of that is due to the experience and motivation of Chef Jorge. He was born in Cuba in 1950; his family moved to the United States in 1959, shortly after Fidel Castro came to power. He grew up in New Jersey, attended public schools, and worked in restaurants after high school until he registered as a journalism major at Temple University. Writing stories became tedious, he says, "and the cooking thing really appealed to me."
Into the woods. He enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., in 1979 and trained as a chef. After graduating in 1982, he worked for the "Queen of Mean" --Leona Helmsley, known for her critical supervision of menus in her hotels and ruthless firings of employees. "I found my way to corporate dining," he says, setting up the food services for a major law firm that expected their catered lunches to compete with the city's finest restaurants. Then he and his wife made an unlikely decision: "We decided to move to Vermont." He first became chef at a Vermont boarding school, then in 1998 began teaching at the New England Culinary Institute.
But after 10 years, he says, "I'd done the woods." When New York University nutrition Prof. Marion Nestle spoke at the University of Vermont about the globalization of the food industry and rising rates of obesity and diabetes, Collazo took his students to hear her. "Suddenly, I realized what direction I wanted to go in," he says. A headhunter contacted him about the job as executive chef for the schools. "Everything came together. I've always had a social consciousness, and with this job, you can really make a difference."
Making a difference has meant not only improving the nutritional content of meals but also increasing the number of students who eat them. He has added new, ethnic dishes to the menus to encourage participation by the diverse student population--chicken guisado (a type of stew), plantains, Cajun fish, Asian tofu wraps, and corn bread. He has switched the snacks to more healthful choices, like bagel chips and low-fat popcorn. For the breakfasts, which the city made free for all students in 2003, he introduced a low-fat breakfast burrito and low-fat cream cheese for bagels. Breakfast-eating has soared; 5 million more breakfasts were served in 2005 than in 2003.
One key to Collazo's success is his belief that the students are his "customers" as surely as those he once served in restaurants and corporate dining rooms. "We're trying to bring concepts from private industry to market to our students," he says. Collazo and his five regional chefs regularly test new menu items in student "focus groups" where several hundred kids sample dishes, write comments, and vote on the item. Consider Garden Burgers. They were previewed in 15 schools, where cafeteria staff held "Build Your Own Burger" days. Kids loved them, and they were added to menus.
Collazo has also instituted two days of intensive culinary training for the army of school cooks, many of whom have worked in the system for years but have never been exposed to the finer points of nutrition, taste, and presentation: "They're excited to learn, and it makes them feel good about what they're doing."
Cafeteria sales are up, but still fewer than 50 percent of high school students eat school lunches. The salad bars in high schools have been Collazo's single most successful innovation, but there is still a stigma to school food, he says. To teenagers, the idea that school lunches are subsidized by the government means school food is somehow "welfare food." "I'm convinced that's one reason we sell so much yogurt; it's branded." So he's now asking his suppliers to package some food as they would for retail sale, to reduce stigma.
The majority of school kitchens in New York and elsewhere don't cook from scratch; they reheat prepared foods. "When I came every piece of chicken and fish was breaded, or fried, or had some coating on it," he says. "I asked why not a plain chicken breast or a plain piece of fish that we could put a good, low-fat cacciatore or guisado sauce on, and then reheat?" The answer: Neither the sauces nor the plain entrees were available.
To remedy the situation, he has been testing sauces and meeting with food companies for months. The plain entrees and healthy sauces may be available by next year. "We serve 860,000 school meals a day in New York. We're using our buying power to force change among food manufacturers, and we continue to set the pace."
If he succeeds, the rest of the nation will most likely not be far behind.
This story appears in the May 9, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.