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globe magazine

Let’s redo lunch

With school back in session, an area group tries fixing the meals students eat.

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WE BEGAN WITH A BELIEF sauteed with a lot of frustration. That a group of focused people, working hard together, could fix the food children eat at school. This is an important challenge: For many Massachusetts students, the cafeteria meals they eat represent about half their total caloric intake for the day.

We don’t want to reinvent the wheel. Come up with some do-gooder solution that ignores the important progress being made in Massachusetts, such as a new ban on some sugary snacks. Our hope is to add urgency to existing efforts and perhaps identify new ones.

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Last winter our group of 30 or so, calling ourselves Let’s Talk About Food, began meeting monthly for breakfast to discuss school meals. We have insiders like school nutritionists and organizations with specialized expertise, like Project Bread, Cooking Matters, and the Greater Boston Food Bank. And outsiders from management consulting, marketing, media, business. We have chefs, pediatricians, and people with food trucks.

Ellen Parker, the executive director of Project Bread, provided our group with an overview of the complexity of the school food system, which involves a web of federal and local regulations.

Schools don’t just have those to contend with, another person piped up, but also the teachers who rearranged the milk displays to put the chocolate in front of the white and the principal who hated arriving in the morning and having the whole school smell like broccoli. (Solution: Blanch it in the morning to speed up the cooking time later.)

Michael Peck, director of food and nutrition services for the Boston public schools, outlined the tremendous success on the city’s universal breakfast program, which was launched in September and is free to all students in the system regardless of need. This is a great beginning, but it needs to expand beyond Boston. Some Massachusetts kids get free breakfast on MCAS days because principals think it helps their students perform better. If all kids were fed breakfast every day, wouldn’t they learn better all year long?

Now, after six months of meetings and presentations, our group is finally evaluating ideas that seem most promising. These aren’t “our” ideas, or even new ideas, but we think they are good ones.

One thought is to build a regional commissary for school food — a stand-alone facility where workers would produce fresh food daily for schools in Greater Boston. Because many of our local school kitchens have only a heat-and-serve capacity, we could use the commissary to replace (or augment) the processed and frozen food we in many cases buy from out-of-state vendors.

Our second strategy focuses on the school food service workers. They’re nearly as important to our children as the teachers in their classrooms, but some people don’t treat them that way. And because many of the dedicated folks who work at schools come to the job with little culinary training, we are thinking through the feasibility of an on- or off-site culinary program. A commissary could do double duty as a professional development center, or school districts could partner with local culinary schools.

Starting in January, with the help of the Babson Social Innovation Lab and its executive director, Cheryl Kiser, we will begin crafting a business plan. Even as we continue to welcome new ideas, we won’t lose sight of our original goal: coming together to make a difference in what we feed our kids every day. It isn’t rocket science (or the war on poverty or obesity, though it might hold answers for both). It is just food served within the four walls of our public schools — and it is more important than you think.

Our group is still open. We could use your help.

Louisa Kasdon is a writer and contributing editor at The Phoenix. Jody Adams is chef/owner of Rialto and Trade restaurants. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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