Stepping into the kitchen at D.C.’s Tyler Elementary School last winter was a far cry from the normal culinary experience chef Cathal Armstrong is used to at the helm of his award-winning Restaurant Eve in Old Town Alexandria, Va. Students were being served “mystery meat” with a strange, syrupy brown sauce poured on top, along with an overly sugary chocolate milk to wash it all down with, the Irish-born chef recalled. Inside the walk-in freezer, he took pictures of food labels with as many as 80 ingredients listed, most of them unpronounceable artificial sweeteners and substitutes. “All of the kids said to us, ‘Please do something about this,’” Armstrong told The Washington Diplomat. “They knew what we were there for and wanted our help.” The visit stemmed from an invitation by the White House to a handful of prominent area chefs asking them to peek inside a few public school cafeterias and come up with a recipe for improvement. First lady Michelle Obama has made curbing childhood obesity one of her signature issues, and “Let’s Move” is the name of the White House-generated campaign that she’s been pushing for more than a year to prompt action on this critical health front. “Let’s Move” is playing out throughout the local community with some of the region’s top chefs. Armstrong, for one, had such a strong reaction to his experience at Tyler Elementary that he quickly assembled a team skilled in philanthropy, marketing and healthy eating to start Chefs as Parents, a new nonprofit group. Chefs as Parents would function as a small catering company to compete with the larger outfits that have traditionally prepared food — highly processed and highly fatty — for the school system. Parents would be an important component of the effort, and the main emphasis would be on utilizing local, healthy produce and proteins. By relying on a core group of volunteers, costs would stay low so that the ingredient quality could be at the highest levels possible. According to Armstrong, since serious discussions began at the start of this year, progress on a pilot project at Tyler has been fast and furious. The eventual goal is to have Chefs as Parents across all of D.C. Public Schools, with the nonprofit cooking three health-conscious meals a day for youngsters. “It’s happened so quickly,” the chef said. “Right away [school officials] were extremely excited and interested.” Now, all that’s standing in the way of the project is a request in the proposals process to determine that a similar group does not exist. Armstrong is hopeful that in the middle of this school year he’ll be able to start serving students. Initially the menus will consist of foods that children are accustomed to eating — pizza, hamburgers, for example — yet without processed chemicals so the meals are substantially better for them. “So we’ll take a chicken nugget and turn it into chicken strips rather than ground-up chicken with artificial ingredients. The next progression would be roasted chicken with roasted potatoes and broccoli or green beans. Maybe we’ll introduce them to lesser-known vegetables like turnips,” Armstrong explained. From there, students would be exposed to more ethnic, exotic fare. As a tie-in to the Mexican holiday of Cinco de Mayo, for instance, the menu of the day might include quesadillas or tacos with high-quality beef and fresh garlic and onions. Armstrong, who has long been an advocate for local ingredients and healthy eating, takes particular issue with the fact that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) does not regulate the amounts of sugar in school cafeterias — only calories. As a result, the food that’s produced is often overloaded with artificial sweeteners, he says. His hope is that he and others involved in “Let’s Move” can provide an alternative education and change the culinary emphasis. “Food is the common thread that connects humans together. It’s very much a part of cultural heritage,” he said. “Somewhere along the line we’ve lost sight of that.” The overall goal of “Let’s Move” is to solve the childhood obesity epidemic within a generation. Michelle Obama began a national conversation on the topic when she broke ground on the White House Kitchen Garden last year. The four pillars that she stressed revolve around empowering parents, providing healthy meals in schools, increasing physical activity, and expanding access to healthy foods. Since then, follow-up groups have been forming around the country to bring together nutrition experts and implement changes that can push these pillars forward. In the D.C. area, the person in charge is Tanikka Cunningham, who ran a for-profit produce company in North Carolina before starting a nonprofit called Healthy Solutions that is devoted to improving access to healthy and affordable foods, particularly in underserved communities. Cunningham is working to pull together other committed individuals for a town hall meeting that, as of press time, was set for late October. They will work on a toolkit for the USDA that offers answers to community and faith-based groups about how to tackle childhood obesity. “So if someone wanted to know how to start a community, it would provide all the resources about who to call and what to do,” Cunningham said. “It’s going to be a great starting point.” Healthy Solutions so far operates a two-acre farm in Pennsylvania that grows a host of organic and specialty vegetables directly marketed to area retailers and restaurants. They are also in charge of a produce cooperative that offers community members ways to purchase fresh fruits, herbs, grains and eggs at below-retail cost. Cunningham, however, cautions that there are still barriers to healthy foods, which she plans to keep working to improve. “The time is now,” she says, “because of that momentum that’s been built around fresh, local food.”
About the Author
Dena Levitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.