cafeterias unknown

Cafeterias Unknown: Who was Anthony Bourdain?

“Eat and drink with people without fear and prejudice...they open up to you in ways that somebody visiting who is driven by a story may not get."

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Anthony Bourdain, chef, traveler, and storyteller; spent nearly 20 years sharing meals with people from around the world as part of his television series, A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations, and Parts Unknown. Before becoming a television personality, Bourdain held the position of Chef at a number of NYC restaurants, including Supper Club, One Fifth Avenue, and Sullivans. Most notably, he was the executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles in Manhattan for many years.

Between 2002 and 2018, Bourdain visited nearly 90 countries and filmed over 200 episodes about food culture around the world. While he spent much of his twenties and thirties stirring up trouble in professional kitchens around NYC, his television series often took a more serious tone. Bourdain used this platform to convey a sense of disappointment in modern food culture and maintained the opinion that food should be eaten thoughtfully and with others. According to the Washington Post, he once said in an interview with VPR,

“If you sit down with people and just say, ‘Hey, what makes you happy? What’s your life like? What do you like to eat?’ More often than not, they will tell you extraordinary things, many of which have nothing to do with food.”

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Our Farm to School team took that notion and ran with it—school cafeteria style. We may not have gotten quite as far as Bourdain. In fact, we didn’t get much further than Bellows Falls. But, we did decide that visiting school cafeterias to eat lunch with local students was going to be an important component of our programming moving forward. We wanted to know what their lives are like and what they like to eat. We wanted to confirm that the stigma around school meals really is changing. And, we’ve heard plenty of extraordinary things.

What Bourdain said was true; food is an incredible conduit for good conversation. While we may have strayed from this tradition a bit in recent years, sharing a meal with others in such an important and nourishing practice. Kids at school do it every day. They pile into the lunchroom with friends and catch up over sandwiches and cartons of milk. They are a jumble of lunchboxes, colorful trays, and winter jackets—and man, do they have a good time!

Anthony Bourdain was all about stepping outside of one’s comfort zone. For many of us adults, school lunch doesn’t quite fit inside that zone. It’s unfamiliar and in many cases, marred by our own primary school experiences. So, we jumped into that zone! We joined students, teachers, and food service professionals in the school food experience. We heard from students that they crave familiar, comforting, and fresh foods; as well as meals that allow for student choice. Food service professionals spoke about their commitment to serving nourishing meal and reducing food waste. And educators are keen to see school meal programs continue to evolve.

As school meal programs are a vital resource for many families, Food Connects is committed to supporting food service professionals in creating programs that they are proud of. Food plays an essential role in community building and we encourage you to learn more about your school meal program. Barack Obama once shared a meal with Anthony Bourdain. He recalls, “This is how I’ll remember Tony. He taught us about food — but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown.”

Cafeterias Unknown: Academy School

Pictured: Jo Carol (left) and Ali West (right)

Pictured: Jo Carol (left) and Ali West (right)

On Tuesdays, we each nachos. For lunch. With refried beans and zesty potato wedges. Top it off with a local apple and you’ve got yourself lunch at Academy School in Brattleboro!

A few weeks back, I went to lunch with Jo Carol Ratti, principal of the Dummerston School for the past 20 years, who was keen to see what’s cookin’ in Brattleboro. So, we joined food service director, Ali West, for lunch at Academy School.

You might wonder what fueled Jo Carol’s curiosity. In her final year at Dummerston, she has been part of a movement that’s beginning to take place. A group of passionate parents has come together to support the school in improving food quality and re-envisioning the school lunch menu. School meals are a complicated world of USDA regulations, tight budgets, and particular customers—so Jo Carol decided to visit Brattleboro for some inspiration.

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The Brattleboro Town School District has improved food quality over the past 5 years by adopting a set of higher food standards and recruiting a stellar food service director to oversee their implementation. Simply put, Ali West is a Rockstar (with a capital R) and is fully committed to serving good food to her students each and every day. She sources a variety of locally grown products and works hard to ensure the district’s higher food standards are met each week.

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Luckily, Ali was able to sneak out of the kitchen for a few minutes to eat lunch and share some wisdom with us. We joined a group of students at the “peanut free” table and set to polishing off our nachos and beans. Academy’s cafeteria is in a shared space with the gymnasium. Students flow through the kitchen to pick up the lunch they ordered earlier in the day and then head next door to grab fruit and a place to sit. Each day, Ali and her staff fill a big bowl with local apples for students to grab as a final addition to their lunch. The menu for Brattleboro Town Schools is similar to other Cafe Services schools, with a few twists. Ali offers local apples and yogurt each day, as well as vegetarian options for students. Her March menu features vegan “Neatballs” and a BBQ tofu sandwich, to replace items featuring animal proteins. The district has eliminated a variety of unhealthy ingredients, including things like high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, and food dyes.

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Ali and her staff connect with Academy students during meal times and have found creative ways to increase participation in school meals. The lunch line is adorned with colorful VT Harvest of the Month posters as well as pictures featuring local farms. To top it all off, the kitchen door boasts its very own “farm to school” sign.

All in all, a fulfilling experience. Until next time Academy!

Cafeterias Unknown: Dummerston Elementary School

February 8, 2019 - Dummerston Elementary School

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Pizza day, oh blessed pizza day! A few weeks back, I got to spend my Friday afternoon lunchtime with a gaggle of first graders at Dummerston Elementary School. What began as a table of 2 quickly turned into a table of 12—those kids sure were eager to tell me stories about their day (and their whole lives)! The majority of my table had school lunch, with a few bringing lunches from home.

From the lunch line, I went with a big slice of pepperoni pizza, a maple-balsamic spinach salad with strawberries, sliced cukes, baby carrots, canned pears and a carton of 2% milk. Oh! And one scrumptious local apple from Green Mountain Orchards in Putney.

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In Dummerston, the kitchen is run by a staff of two—Tracey & Lori of Cafe Services. They cook for about 80 students each day. This year, they are working to decrease waste by switching from plastic to reusable lunch containers. Additionally, they are hoping to eliminate a variety of unhealthy ingredients, increase local purchasing and provide lower sugar content foods whenever possible.

Lunch was super fun. We talked about what it would be like to milk a cow. We talked about what a baked brie and jam birthday cake would taste like. And we took some photos with our eyes closed (just to see what it would look like). Overall, a Friday afternoon well spent.

Eating lunch (or any meal!) with others is always a pleasure—I encourage you to share a meal with friends or colleagues this week!

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