One Meal At A Time

Ann Cooper, the renegade chef of the Ross School in East Hampton, New York, declares with complete seriousness that she is on a crusade to change the way America feeds its children. At a time when more and more American kids are clinically obese and school districts are surrendering food service to Pepsi and Taco Bell, most Americans would, at the very least, consider her lunches out of the ordinary.

Everything is made from scratch and built around what foods are local and in-season from Long Island farms and fisheries. On a recent day in late September, the kitchen staff was serving up sautéed broccoli raab, spaghetti squash, rice, an eggplant-tomato-olive caponata, peanut butter noodles, braised tofu, brick-oven pizza, cauliflower and potato chapatis with rita, miso soup, assorted salads, a sandwich bar, and bread pudding.

Dubbed ‘The Café’ by students, the atmosphere is pleasant and the children are civil: they follow Oriental tradition by donning soft slippers, and dine on china with silverware and cloth napkins.

To keep an operation that serves 1,500 meals each day going during the winter, the kitchen staff also dries, freezes, and otherwise preserves much of the excess harvest. Among other things, the frozen food cache will contain 200 kilos of peppers, 100 kilos of tomato sauce, 20 kilos of eggplant puree, 100 kilos of corn, a dozen kilos of edamame (yes, soybeans show up in the cafeteria), 130 kilos of asparagus, 130 kilos of blackberries, 70 kilos of strawberries, 70 kilos of peaches, 35 kilos of nectarines, 10 liters of nectarine water, 3 kilos of basil, and an unspecified quantity of peas and string beans.

The Ross crew also slices and dries hundreds of kilos of beefsteak tomatoes and stores thousands of kilos of beets, carrots, red and green cabbage, celery root, Chinese rose radish, rutabaga, and turnips.

“Root veggies are very practical,” Cooper says. “You don’t have to freeze them. You don’t have to touch them until you are ready to use them.” Ross often contracts with farmers at the beginning of season, and consistently purchases large quantities of produce, some of it after the summer tourist flows have ebbed, but farms are still flush from the fall harvest. In the words of one local farmer, the school has become “our best friend”.

The labor-intensive work seems justified in the dark of winter when corn chowder or tomato soup or berry muffins burst with flavor and color from months past. (Most schools deal only with prepackaged, processed foods that are reheated, fried, or simply unwrapped before serving.)

But the menu has other benefits. A joint study by the Harvard Medical School and the Centers for Disease Control found that Ross students are eating substantially better than typical American kids, including meals with less fat, sugar, and salt, more fiber and antioxidants, and twice the fruits and vegetables. Urine samples from students contained considerably fewer of 11 organophosphate pesticides than a control group. And three-quarters of parents have been inspired to change the way they cook at home.

Ross is providing meals for a nearby public school, and dozens of other schools have sought Cooper’s advice. The New York City school district, the largest in the country, has asked Cooper to ‘reprocess’ 14 of its top recipes to include healthier ingredients and more food from the Northeast.

Cooper estimated the cost per student per day “for breakfast, lunch, and snacks, and all-day beverages” as less than $4. That may not sound like much, but the federal government only spends $2.25.

Cooper, who recently resigned from Ross in order to “take this model to the nation” believes that even the most limited school budget leaves room for improvement. “Why is someone’s long term health less important than trigonometry?” she asks. “We’re mortgaging our children’s lives because we can’t figure out a way to pay for their meals.”

>Brian Halweil is a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute and also a freelance food and farming writer living on the East End of Long Island

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