CONCORD — The revolution is alive. Not the one that was born here. This is a food revolution, fostered by chef and reality TV gadfly Jamie Oliver and now led locally by chef Alden Cadwell, one of Oliver’s top advisers when “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution” descended on West Virginia three years ago.
Cadwell is completing his first year as food service director for the Concord schools and for Concord-Carlisle High School, and all fronts are reporting gains. Evidently spurred by pork tacos, baked falafel puffs, and many other dishes made from scratch by chef Ryan Costigan, lunch sales are up 10 percent at the high school and 4 percent elsewhere. Nutritionally concerned parents are starting to think school food might be better than a packed lunch, and fans like Concord-Carlisle student Jake Gutwillig, 17, are popping up everywhere. “A lot less kids go off campus for lunch. I went out today, but I didn’t know pulled pork was on the menu,” he said in the cafeteria a couple of weeks ago. “Now that I see it is, I’m going to have to spend some more money.”
Other dishes in Cadwell’s rotation are pasta primavera, vegetarian chili, enchiladas, chicken Caesar wraps, and chicken quesadillas. Pizza is served on Fridays, but french fries are never among the frequent potato side offerings. A baked potato bar with the usual fixings has proved popular with elementary and middle school students especially, Cadwell said.
No sodas are available in school — even bottled water is being removed because of a townwide ban — but Cadwell has chosen not to remove other “competitive foods,” so called because they compete for student dollars, often at the expense of full meals that are nutritionally superior. “It is a revenue source and does pay for higher-quality ingredients for other parts of the meal,” he said.
Cadwell, 32, who could pass for Tom Selleck, lives in Roslindale with his wife and baby boy. Before being hired, he worked in Concord as a consultant for Sustainable Food Systems, the Connecticut company retained by Oliver’s show to help reform school food in Huntington, W.Va. Cadwell spent nine months there, much longer than his usual consulting gigs.
Oliver, says the Concord chef, was “one of the reasons I got into cooking more professionally. Early on, when he was calling himself the ‘Naked Chef,’ I was still in high school or just out of it. He was really young and very passionate, and through his recipes communicated a way of cooking I could really grasp.”
Some critics say Oliver’s message is tainted by his self-promotion, but Cadwell responds: “To produce good TV, you have to be a little bit arrogant.”
Another criticism is that the show took advantage of the folks in West Virginia. But the chef says, “There were so many people who saw that show and it opened up their minds and eyes about what is actually going on in the school food systems. That’s an incredibly powerful thing to happen.”
Concord town fathers were drawn to that power. Egged on by the many parents who had seen the show, they not only hired Cadwell, but also directed him to chart the course ahead. Among the goals that arose from that process are a changeover to scratch cooking, with at least 30 percent locally sourced ingredients, within five years. Cadwell said they are closing in on that percentage already for the roughly 1,300 lunches served daily.
The schools no longer use federal ground beef — no pink slime here — but instead buy their ground beef from local farmers through the fast-food chain B. Good.
Such changes are getting parents’ attention. Kristen Varsames Tyson, 36, of Concord sends her daughter, Charley, 6, to kindergarten at the Alcott School and took it for granted that she would always be packing her lunches.
“Charley came home after a couple months of school and said she really wanted to try it,” says Tyson. “That’s when I looked into it and learned about all the things Chef Alden is doing. My preconceived notion was that school lunches were shoveled, preprocessed, warmed-up food.”
She admits she “was totally wrong.”
Michael Prager can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.