Every year, groups concerned about school nutrition come out with new, innovative programs: "Farm to School," "Guest Chefs," "Home-Style Meals," "Healthier US Schools Programs," and the list goes on. And, every year, regulations and expectations increase while school resources decrease, and we struggle to staff programs to meet these very expectations and intrusive regulations. Dietitians and institutional food preparers diligently work to lead programs that strive toward notoriety within the ecosystem of school nutrition. Awards are given to those dietitians who can actually incorporate fresh vegetables into the ridged 30-day menu cycle. Institutional food directors give popular presentations at conventions and workshops on how to best utilize federally driven exchange systems where schools can trade basic ingredients for money that they use to subsidize more quality heat-n-eat items. The school nutrition ecosystem of menu cycles, production sheets, and meal-to-labor-hour calculations ticks along at the pace of the very regulations the dietitians and institutional food experts themselves established. Way to go.
But what this ecosystem generates is worse than that which it had hoped to solve (I'll post more about this at a later date). Moreover, right down the street from the elementary school that has food efficiently satellited in from the production kitchen, there is a restaurant with a chef. This chef must turn a profit to stay open and must produce food that people want to pay extra for. This chef purchases only the basic ingredients at the most reasonable prices, often locally grown fresh vegetables. To both make a profit and attract patrons, the chef must exert skill and wield creativity in a quest to market cuisine, often with little equipment. The chef doesn't need a nationally endorsed program to encourage him or her to use locally-grown, fresh produce; this comes naturally. Schools have the farm-to-school program, which is riddled with issues of student-preference, distribution, and insurance coverage. The chef doesn't need a high-profile educational program to engender more skill and inspiration; in true to form passion for food, a chef's drive and experience is more than enough. Schools have the "Guest Chef" program, which will rarely reach rural schools or schools located in less than desirable areas. Still, the push and pull struggle between the established school nutrition ecosystem and (this is the dichotomy of the dilemma) what it wishes it were creates insurmountable challenges. Though caring and highly knowledgeable, dietitians and institutional food directors don't have chef skills, aren't used to the restaurant pace, and don't struggle to competitively keep customers walking through the front door. We give school nutrition directors awards for adding shredded, farm-fresh carrots to pre-packaged muffin mix once a month, while the chef at the restaurant down the street, night after night and week after week, creates profitable and appetizing fare, mostly with locally-grown, fresh resources.
Admittedly, I am embellishing points in this essay for effect, but my point is difficult to dismiss without consideration and meaningful debate. Why aren't schools destination-jobs for chefs? Why isn't the school nutrition ecosystem encouraging more trained chefs to consider jobs in schools? The restaurant industry is notorious for chewing up chefs alive. It's not an exaggeration to say that the profession of chefs is afflicted with alcoholism, bankruptcy, and divorce. Bad hours, high stress, and constant uncertainty plague the profession. I can't believe a certain segment of that population wouldn't find the stable work environment of schools appealing, with our decent benefits, retirement, and holidays. Again, why aren't schools places where chefs are applying to work? Answer: Dietitians and institutional food directors have unbelievably turned them away because they believe chefs don't have the training and understanding of regulation and dietary standards. So, though dietitians have a great grasp of the regs and the food pyramid, they apparently don't have the expertise and experience needed to articulate the very goals they posit for our schools. And, though trained chefs have a great grasp of the skills and creativity needed to function in a restaurant, they are untested in their capacity to grasp and implement school nutrition regulation and policy.
I'd like to suggest a call to action, a charge to begin to attract chefs to work in schools and to create supportive scaffolding for them to successfully deal with all the rules.