The biggest lunch-time favorites in the Fenway High School cafeteria were not even on the menu. Dozens of Boston students swarmed two chefs — rare figures in a land of lunch ladies — who were giving out samples of vegetables that finicky students tend to disdain: broccoli and kale.
The remarkable sight of teenagers scarfing down such healthy fare came down to preparation. The chefs sneaked the kale into a chicken and cheese quesadilla, and they oven-roasted fresh broccoli, then mixed it with parmesan and raw garlic.
In a novel experiment this fall, Fenway High has transformed its cafeteria into a test kitchen, teaming up with the nonprofit Project Bread to create new entrees that can be reproduced at cafeterias across the city.
The goal is to introduce healthy dishes that students will actually eat, while also staying on budget. It is a tall order for a school system that spends less than $1 per serving on each lunch entree and yet has been racking up millions of dollars in losses, leaving little room to spend more on food.
“It’s not enough to have healthy food,” said Ellen Parker, executive director of Project Bread, a statewide antihunger organization based in Boston. “We need to have healthy food that tastes good so kids will eat it . . . . This is a big step ahead for Fenway High and the entire system.”
Whether kids are eating healthy meals they like might seem tangential in an age of high-stakes testing, urban violence, and playground bullying. But a growing body of research has revealed a link between nutrition and achievement, and schools today are the main source of food each day for millions of students nationwide.
Boston’s test kitchen could inspire other districts to rethink school food. But as often occurs in public education with large-scale initiatives, the experiment may be doomed by the cost. The trick, supporters say, is to get more students to eat the food. That would increase the per-student federal reimbursements for school-lunch participation and help to steer the city’s school-food program into the black.
School officials contend that if the project proves successful, they will be able to serve up more lunches with few increases in overhead costs. About 73 percent of Boston students participate in the school lunch program and all students, regardless of income, can eat breakfast and lunch for free under a federal initiative for districts with high levels of low-income students.
So far, early results from Fenway High look promising. Students often asked for seconds at the taste testings and now the Fenway High menu features nine of the 18 tested food items, including the parmesan-garlic broccoli and the chicken quesadilla. This month, Project Bread chefs started teaching the recipes to cooks from other schools.
But Boston is severely constrained on how many schools can serve fresh meals. About two-thirds of the city’s 125 schools lack full-service kitchens, preventing cooking from scratch. Instead, these schools — many of them built decades ago when students went home for lunch or brought food to school — rely on frozen entrees trucked in from a food-production facility on Long Island, N.Y., and then warmed up in convection ovens.
The entrees, which are packaged in black trays, feature sweet and sour chicken, macaroni and cheese, and other fare. Many parents and students have held up the frozen meals as glaring deficiencies in the lunch program.
But school officials stress the nutritional value of the frozen lunches is comparable to freshly prepared meals, noting both conform to federal nutritional standards.
For elementary schools, lunches must contain between 550 and 650 calories and no more than 640 milligrams of sodium. At high schools, the guidelines are between 750 and 850 calories and no more than 740 milligrams of sodium. In all cases, less than 10 percent of calories can come from saturated fats.
The food wars
In a state where Brookline High School features sushi and Cambridge serves up student-grown produce, the steps taken by Fenway High and Project Bread might seem modest.
But large urban systems nationwide — hampered by high labor costs and schools without kitchens — are struggling to overhaul their programs to comply with five-year-old changes in federal standards for school lunches. The changes, pushed by Michelle Obama, call for whole grains, more fresh produce, and reducing sodium levels, among other measures.
The requirements have shed light on a big problem: Many urban districts, in order to cook healthy, need to spend an average of $87,743 for walk-in refrigerators, ovens, or other appliances at each school, according to a February report by The Pew Charitable Trusts.
“Many districts don’t have an equipment-replacement program,” said Jessica Donze Black, director of the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project, a collaboration between Pew and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “If something is broken they change the menu.”
Some large districts are aggressively forging ahead with upgrades.
Minneapolis is spending more than $100 million to build dozens of kitchens. The district already has installed salad bars in most schools, a move Boston has resisted, insisting it is too expensive.
“The community really rallied behind us,” said Bertrand Weber, director of culinary and nutrition services for Minneapolis schools. “Because of that support it really rose as a priority for the school district to shift money in the capital renewal plan to build new kitchens and dining rooms.”
Even Detroit, which only emerged from bankruptcy a year ago, has pursued innovation, opening a two-acre farm that grows produce for school meals.
“I definitely think people are seeing lunch as a critical need for students to focus and succeed rather than just being an interruption in their day,” said Jennifer LeBarre, executive director for nutritional services at Oakland, Calif., schools, which is planning to build a new central kitchen with a one-acre teaching farm. “It used to be there was never a connection made between school lunch and why it was needed and why it was important.”
Research has changed that view. A 2003 study, for instance, found that kindergartners from homes struggling to put food on the table “not only score lower at the beginning of the year but also learn less over the course of the school year” than students from other households. The study, published in Contemporary Economic Policy, examined more than 21,000 students in a thousand US schools.
The correlations come down to common sense, researchers and educators say. Students are more focused when they are well fed instead of being distracted by growling bellies or struggling with fatigue because of poor nutrition.
Many students at Fenway High put it another way: A bad lunch can wreck the entire afternoon.
“I’ll throw the food out and I’ll have attitude all day,” said Janae Beauliere, 16, a sophomore. “I’ll just not want to do anything.”
But she adds, “When the food is good, I’m all sunshine.’’
It is not known how many Boston students might be experiencing hunger. But the number could be significant, according to state data on students who are “economically disadvantaged,” a formula based on families receiving food stamps, Medicaid, or other welfare benefits. Nearly half of Boston students fall into this category.
Boston Superintendent Tommy Chang has made turning around the system’s food service program a top priority, said Barbara Deane-Williams, deputy superintendent of operations.
“We know students who are healthy, well-fed, and exercise bring that higher level of energy into the classroom,” Deane-Williams said.
Innovation has been stymied by the food service program’s nearly decade-long financial losses — as high as $4 million annually — that have led to cost-cutting measures that have riled parents.
The school system receives $3.19 in state and federal reimbursements for each lunch sold — a high amount based on the large percentage of low-income students Boston schools serves. More than half of that money covers labor and other overhead costs, leaving just $1.44 for the food.
After factoring in the cost of fruit, a vegetable, and milk, the school system has only 77 cents to spend on the protein and grain portions.
While food costs are a challenge, the financial woes run much deeper for Boston’s school-food program. A report commissioned last year by the school system also attributed Boston’s losses to poor inventory tracking and a “lack of organizational will to address structural issues.”
The Fenway renegades
The Fenway High experiment is dramatically different than the school’s original proposal last fall: It wanted to secede from the food service program and create its own menu, hire its own kitchen staff, and order its own food.
But in a series of meetings with school district officials that persisted into the summer, discussion evolved into the broader experiment to use Fenway High to revolutionize cafeteria menus citywide.
Fenway High offers an ideal environment for a test kitchen, school officials say. This fall, it relocated from its longtime digs near Fenway Park to a refurbished school building in Mission Hill, which boasts a new full-service cafeteria.
“We want to get kids thinking more about what is healthy eating and that it is not just eating carrots,” said Peggy Kemp, the school’s headmaster.
The partnership represents a reunion of sorts. Project Bread started its chef-in-schools program in 2007 at two Boston middle schools and later worked with a few other city schools. This latest endeavor is far more ambitious, affecting cuisine across the system.
“We can’t afford to put a chef in every school — that is not cost-effective — but we can share the knowledge,” said Scott Richardson, director of research and strategic initiatives for Project Bread.
Project Bread has built a track record of getting students to eat healthier. Harvard University’s School of Public Health, in examining the nonprofit’s efforts in two districts outside Boston, found last year that students ate three-quarters of a cup more vegetables a week, twice as much as before the program brought in chefs. Project Bread assisted with the research.
Inside a cramped office in Fenway High’s kitchen, Richardson chronicles the experiment on his laptop using bar graphs breaking down student surveys on the taste testings. One afternoon, he proudly pointed to results for a chicken quesadilla: 75 percent rated it awesome and 23 percent good.
But then he pulled up lackluster results for chicken teriyaki — 29 percent deemed it awesome, 40 percent good, and 24 percent “just OK” — and declared that the recipe needed more work. A prime student complaint was not enough salt.
Getting kids to eat healthy often means breaking them of bad habits. The big ones: liking too much salt and snubbing their veggies. Project Bread has discovered ethnic dishes, with their mixture of spices, tend to entice picky eaters.
The program shies away from using posters or other advertising to promote healthy eating, believing instead that students gain more insight by talking with the chefs during taste tests.
The food samples often garnered immediate praise.
“Who made this?” Yira Genesis, an 11th-grader, asked as she held up a half-eaten chicken quesadilla. “That is the bomb!”
She high-fived chef Gaitskell Cleghorn Jr. “It was a collective effort,” he said.
The quesadilla, Genesis said, is like the Spanish food she eats at home.
Will Kadzis, 17, said the food is actually better than what he eats at home.
“I mostly eat sandwiches at home,” he said. “Sometimes I cook stuff in the microwave — pizza rolls, mac and cheese, leftovers.”
Project Bread has had to make trade-offs to stay on budget as it aims to replicate the recipes across the system, replacing such items as fresh chicken and broccoli with frozen varieties — a move that also reduces preparation time.
Some of the new recipes may even wind up in students’ homes. About a dozen parents showed up at Fenway High one drizzly Thursday evening for a cooking demonstration.
Beliza Moriarty brought her two sons in hopes of enticing them to try the food.
“They won’t eat the school lunch,” she said. “I make their lunch every day.”
Ezekiel, an 11th-grader, said he skips the lunch line because of long lines and potentially small portions. But he and his brother liked the Caribbean braised chicken, going for seconds. Their mom let out a big sigh of relief and said: “Yes!”