May 26th, 2012 - By Lari Robling
You've heard the expression, "Much depends on dinner." In this case, much depends on lunch– or more accurately school lunch. Chef and restaurateur, Marc Vetri, and his business partner, Jeff Benjamin, work to change the landscape of school lunches through their Vetri Foundation program, "Eatiquette." We join the Community Partnership School in North Central Philadelphia for a look at a how the program works.
“Almost anyone who wants to get into the restaurant world, they see all this, you know, food network stuff and the high end stuff and they want to learn how to make foams and they want to learn how to make powders and they want their name up in lights,” observes Chef Marc Vetri. “But, you know, it's really all about the heart and soul of food. And there is a heart and soul in food, you know, because it all starts out with something living.”
Vetri and business partner, Jeff Benjamin, have four celebrated Philadelphia restaurants receiving national attention– including the prestigious James Beard Awards.
But both Vetri and Benjamin are committed to bringing heart and soul in food to an unlikely venue— school lunches!
Through the Vetri Foundation for Children they've created Eatiquette, a program transforms school lunches into scratch meals made with fresh produce served in a social atmosphere.
Tia McDonald is the director of culinary operations for Vetri Foundation. She’s a graduate of Culinary Institute of America, with 25 years cooking in kitchens; she balances the program's vision with the real world.
Notes McDonald, “It's a huge change, it's a shift in culture not only for that school for the entire market place in K-12 it has become completely dependent on processed foods not only from a labor standpoint, but from a financial standpoint.”
“I'm working in the kitchen with these individuals who have worked with tater tots and chicken nuggets for the last five, ten years and all they have to do is throw stuff in the oven and their job is done,” says McDonald.
A typical Eatiquette lunch program is about $1.50 including milk. Tia McDonald admits that's a little more than what most schools spend, but part of her job is to make meals feasible within the confines of the national school lunch program.
“You are working with a higher grade of product,” she says. “It's not canned beans; it's not canned spinach but it is fresh spinach and fresh tomatoes that you get in everyday.”
McDonald has a solution. She says, “We work with fresh herbs and when I work with the chef in the school I show them how to get the best product at the best price, but also how to reutilize– if you have excess herbs left over you can make a salad dressing out of that without wasting an excess amount of product.”
The lunches are served family style at small round tables. Rotating captains set the table, fill water glasses and pass food. Teachers and staff discuss the food and keep the conversation flowing.
Linn Vaughters is the Director of Enrollment at the Community Partnership School in North Central Philadelphia. The school is part of a pilot program that offers lunch one day a week for now. Several teachers have observed better student behavior in the afternoons after these lunches.
Vaughters says, “I think they are a lot calmer and I think that fresh ingredients and fresh food has a lot to do with it. It does affect your mood and your brain chemistry.”
Today’s menu features grilled cheese and turkey sandwiches, salad, roasted carrots with, mint and homemade biscuits with fresh berries and cream.
For some students, it is a new experience to taste freshly whipped cream and it was well received. But, when Chef McDonald asks a student to describe the roasted carrots with mint, she comes up with the adjective “burnt.”
Even in the elementary school set, there's always a budding restaurant critic!