Five Questions for: Timothy Cipriano

FoodService Director - Five Questions for: Timothy Cipriano Timothy Cipriano, executive director of school foodservice at the New Haven Public Schools in Connecticut, was one of the original architects for Chefs Move to Schools, a program under first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign. Cipriano talked to FSD about developing the program, some of the barriers and what he hopes the program can accomplish.

How did you get involved with Chefs Move to Schools?

I went to the Legislative Action Conference with the School Nutrition Association in late February. I do a lot of work with Share Our Strength and I reached out to them to see if they could set up a meeting between myself and Sam Kass of the White House. I went with John Turenne of Sustainable Food Systems. We went to the White House to meet with Sam and for whatever reason, our credentials didn’t make it into the system so we didn’t make it into the White House. Sam said not to worry because he would meet us at a local coffee shop. My intent of the meeting was a meet and greet and to tell Sam what we were doing. Sam came to the meeting with an agenda prepared. He was talking about this idea of getting chefs to adopt schools. He asked if we would be interested in helping him put it together. Who is going to say no to the White House?

Within a couple of weeks, myself and eight other chefs from around the country flew into D.C. for a two-hour meeting with Sam, representatives from the first lady’s office, the USDA and Share Our Strength to talk about Chefs Move to Schools. At the time it was just a program to get chefs to adopt schools. It was nothing set in stone. It was nothing more than an idea.

It’s all tied into the Let’s Move campaign. The first lady and Sam Kass wanted to figure out how we can engage kids to eat real food and learn about gardening and what to do with food when you grow it. Two people came up. One of them was chefs because of all the chef-celebrities. The other was grandmothers because grandmothers are the ones who are cooking from scratch more and maybe have a garden at home. Well, grandmothers move to schools maybe didn’t fly. Sam is involved with more than just cooking for the first family. I think it just shows that having a chef around and getting the kids involved and excited about food makes a difference. I think now is the perfect time because there is a huge childhood hunger issue. President Obama said he wanted to end childhood hunger by 2015. Kids and nutrition are on his mind. All this ties in to the program.

What is your role with the program?

I don’t have an official role. I’m working with the first lady’s office and Sam to put this whole concept together. I’m working pretty closely with the USDA to answer any questions they might have. Being a chef in schools right now, it’s a good opportunity for the White House or the USDA to reach out to me and ask what can we do and what can’t we do because there are so many rules and regulations in working in schools. Also, how do chefs approach working in schools. If I were in a restaurant, for me to go approach a school to work with them, unless you have kids in the schools and you know the administrators, you really don’t know what you can do and what you can’t do. So I’m kind of an informal liaison between the chefs and the schools.

I worked in restaurants up until Sept. 11. I know both sides of the table. Some of the stuff that I do currently at New Haven, like cooking demos or tasting with kids after schools, the intent of Chefs Move to Schools is to do things like that just on a much bigger level.

What are some of the goals of Chefs Move to Schools?

It’s up to the individual schools and the chef as to what kind of plan they come up with. It could be a weekly program or once a month. The goal is to get chefs into the schools to make a difference. It’s not to get them into the cafeteria specifically. It’s more to get them into the classrooms to talk to the kids. It’s a big deal when a chef comes into a school, especially now with the Food Network and all these different channels that have food and chefs on them. I’ll walk into a school with my shirt and tie on and the kids look at me like, oh, boy. Who is this and why is he coming to talk to me. If I wear my chef coat, I’m a rock star and they want to know if I’m on TV. You can talk to them and keep them engaged for an hour, but if you have that shirt and tie on you’ve got a couple of minutes and they are off onto another thought.

I think the Chefs Move to Schools program, although it’s not designed for the chefs to be in the kitchen changing the meals, the perception is there are chefs now involved in the school. I think people like the idea that there is a chef around. For the most part, foodservice directors are registered dietitians and they look at food from the nutrition standpoint. Chefs don’t necessarily look at food from the nutritional standpoint but from the look, the flavor and the quality. You are seeing food from two different angles from two different people inside the school. Ultimately the kids will benefit because the foodservice directors now have a chef on site that they can reach out to. If a director wants to offer more black beans because beans are good for you. But he questions how to get kids to eat black beans, then the chef can suggest a cool black bean salad with all real flavors and no added sugar or processed foods to it.

I think that collaboration will be good in the long run. I think in the beginning it will be a little bit difficult for the chefs to really make a difference in the school foodservice because that’s what school nutrition people do. Change is difficult for anybody. Certainly how the negative press for school nutrition programs, I think that people might feel initially that the chefs are coming in to take over their program. That’s not what we are trying to do. It is not the intent of the program to take over the kitchen. It’s about educating the students about food.

What do you think is the biggest barrier to a program like Chefs Move to Schools having a lasting impression?

Change and ego. Change is difficult for many people to accept and to handle. In order for this program to be successful we will all need to think outside the box. Chefs have egos, some larger than others, everyone knows that. Schools are no place for egos; they should be checked at the door.

What is the next step for you?

We are putting together a kickoff in October. We’re working on some nutritional education and a marketing campaign in our schools and we are tying in Chefs Move to Schools with that.

We are working with a bunch of community groups and companies. We’re working with FEED Projects. They have these burlap sacks and they are sold at high-end retailers. When the bags are sold, the profit goes to feed a child in Kenya for a whole year. We’re working on something with them about how we can partner that program with Chefs Move to Schools to feed kids in this country. They designed these FEED USA bags and they are going to be sold at Gap stores starting in September. Five dollars from each bag sold will go to this Web site, donorschoose.org. It’s a Web site for teachers to go on and get mini grants. So if the teacher needs to get a box of pencils and they don’t have any money they can go on this site and people have donated money and the teacher can get the box of pencils. When someone buys a FEED USA bag they get a PIN code and they go on the Web site and they can say where they want the money to go. It could be a garden kit or a start your own greenhouse kit. This will help get money into the Chefs Move to Schools program. This is a volunteer program. We know that if there is some money available, there is a better chance that we will get more chefs involved. I know there were more than 3,000 chefs signed up about three weeks ago.