Five Questions for: Kirk Conrad

FoodService Director - Five Questions for: Kirk ConradIn 2007, a pilot program was launched in two middle schools in the Boston Public Schools. The pilot, Chefs in Schools, was designed to see what would happen if more fruits and vegetables were added to the schools’ lunch menus. Kirk Conrad is the chef behind the project. Late last year, preliminary results were released from the pilot, which found that the program was making progress. FSD spoke with Conrad to find out what changes have been made and his next steps.

What is the Chefs in School initiative?

I came onboard the Chefs in Schools Initiative as a one-year pilot program in the City of Boston working specifically in two middle schools trying to increase the nutritional variance of the food. What that entailed was changing the menu a little bit and inserting as many fruit and vegetables as humanly possible and budget-wise possible.

The first couple of months we were just trying to get the lay of the land. The following year we really got aggressive in the two schools in putting a lot more fresh fruits and vegetables on the menus.

Money for the pilot was through a grant from Project Bread. Project Bread, the Boston Public School Department and the Boston Public Health Commission are all involved in the program.

What started as a one-year pilot has turned into an ongoing program. In March it will be four years. The program has expanded to eight schools.

Because of the complex nature of the program, it’s difficult to set concrete goals. What we’d like to do is get all the cafeterias up to the point where we are offering as many fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, made from scratch sauces and a consistency in all the schools. Would I like to see gourmet, made from scratch food in every kitchen, yes, but the reality of the situation is that’s not going to happen.

What changes did you make at the two schools?

We tried to make sauces from scratch. We worked on making made from scratch soups with plenty of vegetables in them. We looked at bringing whole-grain pasta, whole-wheat breads and brown rice into the menus in ways that the kids would still find appealing and enjoyable. We didn’t overhaul the menu all at once. We introduced things slowly and we thought about ways to make them appealing to the students.

The biggest challenge was, I’m dealing with twelve- to fourteen-year-old kids primarily. The most important thing for me was I wanted to make food that they would really eat. I didn’t want to cancel out all the items and put on grilled salmon and roasted asparagus tips and tofu stir-fry. I knew that the students wanted to see chicken sandwiches, burgers, wraps, pasta dishes and pizza on Friday. We worked with the dietitian in the school department to look at how we could improve the cuisine. We added some new products like low-fat cheese, whole-grain pizza dough, low-sodium sauces. Even though we can’t totally abandon the use of commodities, we are trying to insert as many fresh fruits and veggies as possible in a fiscally responsible manor.

A couple of years ago I tried to write the menus myself for the two pilot schools and it totally broke down and was very confusing. So we work with the Boston Public Schools menu. I’ve helped work on that a little bit for all the schools. We sit down with each manager at the pilot schools, who is in charge of ordering, and I tell her that this is what I’d like to see.

How have the students responded?

Not every day is a bright, golden sunshine day. Not every day are the kids rushing over to hug me and say, “Chef, this is the best food ever.” It is obviously an ongoing process. We are continually working with the staff, training and trying new things. We are trying to get new products in. People are not only looking at the trans fats but also at the sodium content. I think that’s going to be the big pressure point coming up. I have to work within the constructs of the program. Sometimes that’s easy and sometimes it’s not. I can tell you that in the schools I’ve worked in I can definitely see change. The kids are happier. They are eating more. The participation rates are up.

What have been the results of the pilot?

We did a plate waste study last year and we found that they were eating lots more fresh fruits and veggies in the pilot schools. One-third of food from non-pilot schools’ meals was thrown away, while only one-fifth of food from school meals in the pilot schools was thrown away. We have seen a marked improvement, but it’s still an incredible challenge and a work in progress.

Some other results included:
•    More than three times as many students ate vegetables in the pilot schools than in non-pilot schools
•    Among students who ate vegetables in the pilot schools, they ate on average 30% more vegetables
•    When only 1% milk was served instead of chocolate milk, students still drank the same amount of milk
•    Meals had 50% more whole grains in the pilot schools
•    Participation increased 17% in pilot schools

What have you learned since working in the two schools?

The biggest thing is that not everything is going to be successful and easy. It’s a trial process. It’s got to be worked through. Once you find something that works, then you can build upon it, but it’s definitely not an easy process. I had a meeting with the mayor when I first started and he asked me how things were going. I said, “It’s incredibly difficult,” and he told me, “If it were easy, someone else would have already done it.”

One of the big things that I have experienced is, when I walk into a school with my chef hat, chef jacket and checked pants, the students and the faculty see a chef working there and that buys me a little bit of credibility and that means they may be willing to try some new things. That doesn’t happen in the other schools because there isn’t a chef working there. If we can get that kind of excitement in all the schools, I think that would be a success of the program.

Photo Credit: Judith Ritter