Can Marc Vetri Save School Lunch?

As a young child, much to my dismay, my mother packed my lunch every day. My homemade whole-wheat bread, natural peanut butter, and sugar-free jam sandwiches and carrot sticks seemed boring and embarrassing compared to the pizza-burgers dished out in the school lunch line or the mini bags of chips and cream-filled cake rolls that other kids carried in their lunch boxes. No one wanted to make any food trades with me. While frustrating at the time, I’m now glad that my mom (who was able to only work part-time for much of my elementary experience) valued the importance of a healthy meal – popular at the lunch table or not.

In my experience working with kids since then – in a wide variety of school,  institutional settings, and nonprofit settings – I’ve come to realize just how rare this is. And when 16% of American children live in food insecure families, school and free lunch programs often provide the only guaranteed meal a day. But these meals – due to budget restriction, red tape, and a truly appalling USDA bulk food system – are often woefully lacking in basic nutrients. And don’t even get me started on how many children have no idea what whole pieces of fruit look like, or that french friend come from a food called a potato, that grows in the ground. If you happened to catch the tv show Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, a season-long show in which British chef Jamie Oliver tried to reinvent the school lunch system in one of the USAs most obese counties, you know impossible the task proved to be. The poor man cried.

So I’m more than pleased to read about local chef Marc Vetri’s “Eatiquette,” a kitchen-table-style  eating plan at the People for People  Philadelphia Charter school. Children not only eat nutritious meals, they know what they are eating, why they are eating it, and they enjoy these meals family-style – an important sociocultural aspect of sharing food that is often ignored by institutional systems.

So what am I going to complain about? Not much. I’m just going to ask how we can implement this program, or a program like it, more broadly in Philadelphia, and around the country, so that children everywhere – especially the neediest – have access.While the $2.66 mandated per child usually provides the canned fruits and vegetables, fried and over-processed everything else, and a healthy dose of ketchup, Eatiquette offers” panko-crusted chicken tenders. Baked ziti with chickpea-and-cucumber salad. Roasted chicken with mushroom risotto. Sautéed shrimp with gazpacho. Strawberries with mint cream. Lemon granita. Melon salad.” Which would you rather eat?

Philadelphia Magazine writes that “They approached the Philadelphia School District about installing Eatiquette in the city’s public schools. But the district’s behemoth size, complicated work rules and uneven allocation of kitchens among its 200-plus buildings required far too much up-front tinkering with a lunch concept that, frankly, needed to be piloted on a much smaller scale.” Perhaps something for the new Philadelphia Schools Commissioner to consider? Or perhaps its something that we should start demanding. What do you think?

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