Mayor Martin Walsh called the school lunch pilot program that began last year in East Boston, where fresh food is cooked onsite on a daily basis using healthy ingredients, a ‘game changer’.
Through a partnership with the Shah Family Foundation, four Boston Public Schools (BPS) in Eastie have been enjoying freshly prepared lunches like Baja fish tacos, BBQ chicken, freshly cooked veggies and salads throughout the school year with the help of renowned Chef Ken Oringer.
On Monday, Walsh toured the Bradley School’s ‘My Way Cafe’ and announced that he will be expanding the pilot program to 30 additional BPS schools in the city.
The pilot program used what Walsh called the ‘Hub and Spoke’ model. This model utilized East Boston High School’s already-constructed in-service kitchens to prep food for nearby schools in Eastie that did not have such kitchens.
Through a grant from the Shah Family Foundation, EBHS replaced its older warming ovens used to heat plastic-wrapped food with Welbilt ‘combi-ovens’ that can not only reheat, but cook and steam foods. The school also received freezers, a refrigerator, and three basin sinks.
This new kitchen allowed EBHS to cook freshly prepared foods not only for students there, also but for the East Boston Early Education Center, Bradley Elementary, and Patrick J. Kennedy Elementary. The three other Eastie schools were retrofitted with hybrid-model kitchens to cook and serve food on-site for students.
Chef Oringer, whose restaurants include Toro, Coppa, and Little Donkey, worked with EBHS Food and Nutrition staff and students to come up with recipes that students would enjoy.
“Boston is leading the way in making sure our students have access to fresh, healthy food,” said Mayor Walsh. “The success of this program in East Boston serves as a model for the rest of the city. Thanks to our key partners, we’re now able to bring this program to 30 schools. Choices at our schools need to work for all families and students, many of whom depend on school meals. With this program, we will continue to create happy, successful students, while listening to the needs of our communities.”
At Monday’s event, Walsh joined students at the Bradley for lunch and dined on freshly cooked BBQ chicken, steamed brown rice, corn on the cob and salad. Walsh talked with students during lunch to get feedback on what they thought of the program.
School lunch, usually frozen food that’s prepackaged and reheated for the masses, has historically not been the most appetizing meal for students. However, for thousands of low-income students it may be the lion’s share of nutrition they get during the day.
Students told Walsh of their experience with school lunch prior to the pilot program. One student complained to the Mayor about how the grilled cheese sandwiches that were frozen and reheated on site had no flavor and would often stick to the plastic wrap. While another student told the Mayor that she had very few options to choose from at lunch time, but now there is a wide array of freshly prepared foods. Many students told the Mayor their favorite meal of the week is taco day where students chose their own meat and types of fresh toppings like lettuce, tomatoes and shredded cheese.
“Not only are we providing better access to healthy food, but more students are eating the food because it’s delicious and they have a choice,” said Superintendent Tommy Chang. “The meals provided at school are often the most healthy meals students receive. It’s important that we provide healthy and delicious options for our students everyday.”
Among the 30 additional schools that will take part in the program next year are seven Eastie schools. They are the Samuel Adams Elementary School; Dante Alighieri Montessori School; Curtis Guild Elementary School; Donald McKay K-8 School; Hugh R. O’Donnell Elementary School; James Otis Elementary School; and the Mario Umana Academy.
“The Shah Family Foundation is thrilled to support the transformation of school food in Boston,” said President of the Shah Family Foundation Jill Shah. “Moving from pre-packaged food to fresh local food, including a full salad bar everyday, will provide more nutrition for our students and more jobs for our community. The successful pilot in East Boston demonstrated significantly higher student participation rates with substantially reduced costs. We look forward to partnering with Mayor Walsh to eventually expand this project across the entire city over the next few years.”