Two years ago, Jill Shah was volunteering during recess at a Roxbury elementary school where she and other volunteers were attempting to get students to try some arugula and other greens grown in the school garden.
She was astonished to learn that students rarely feasted on fresh foods inside the building and instead were being served frozen dinners because the school, like most in Boston, was not equipped with a full-service kitchen.
A year later, Shah worked with the school system on an experiment: putting up money to build kitchens in three schools in East Boston that didn’t have them so students could eat fresh meals prepared on site. The experiment proved so successful that Mayor Martin J. Walsh announced Monday that it would be expanding next fall to more than two dozen schools in East Boston, Roxbury, and Mattapan, and will be called “My Way Cafe.”
The $3 million effort — half of it being paid for by the Shah Family Foundation — represents the latest step by the school system and the mayor’s office to get the freshest food possible into the bellies of the system’s 56,000 students. (A separate effort launched last fall replaced all frozen dinners with fresher meals prepared off premises by an outside vendor, Revolution Foods.)
But the gold standard is meals created and cooked inside a school kitchen. “It shows kids they are loved and we really care about them,” said Shah, the foundation’s president.
Walsh, along with Superintendent Tommy Chang, made the announcement over lunch at the Bradley Elementary School in East Boston, where a kindergarten classroom was replaced with a full-service kitchen attached to a lunch room that doubles as an auditorium.
There, Walsh and Chang joined dozens of fifth-graders for barbecued chicken drumsticks, brown rice, corn on the cob, roasted broccoli, orange wedges, and make-your-own salad. They also sipped on cups of water infused with fresh cut strawberries and lemon.
“That chicken was pretty awesome,” Walsh said after finishing his meal at a pint-size table.
Students said they too liked the meal. “It’s really, really good,” said Faviola Rodriguez, 11, who said it was vastly superior to the frozen dinners from last year. “Before it looked and tasted like plastic.”
The frozen dinners resembled those found in the supermarket — packaged in plastic black containers with clear plastic on top. Often the packages, heated up in a warming oven, would sit so long that condensation would form on the top and the meals would become cool and wet.
“That was not appealing,” said Paulina Gutierrez, 11. “Now, I can see the steam coming off the food.”
About two-thirds of Boston’s 125 schools were built decades ago without kitchens during a time when students would either go home for lunch or bring one to school. Many of the schools are small, serving as few as 150 students, and the belief has long been there is not enough space to create a full-fledged cafeteria experience.
But the Shah Family Foundation’s effort, initially dubbed the “hub and spoke,” is debunking that misconception.
Under the model, the three East Boston schools — the Bradley, the P.J. Kennedy, and East Boston Early Education Center — are partnering with East Boston High School on the meals. The high school, which long has had a full-service cafeteria, holds much of the fresh food inventory, sends out the proper amounts to the schools daily, and also does some prep work, such as making the barbecue sauce.
But most of the food, including the chicken, is cooked at the individual schools. A similar arrangement will be used with the other schools getting outfitted with kitchens.
Under the program, the schools will receive a combination oven and steamer, a refrigerator, a freezer, several sinks, and hot and cold serving stations.
Ken Oringer, a chef and owner of Toro, Uni Boston, and other restaurants showed cafeteria workers how to cook some new menu items.
Walsh said he would like the program to expand to all schools that don’t have kitchens, noting that he hears a lot of complaints about food from students and families at those schools. “Having nutritious meals in schools is a game changer for people in the development of their brains and their bodies and their understanding of eating right and getting a balanced meal.” Walsh said. “It changes their outcomes in how they perform in school. There is no question about it.”
Chang said Roxbury and Mattapan were chosen for the expansion because the neighborhoods, which he described as “food deserts,” are in the greatest need for the healthiest food possible in their schools.
One student, after lunch wrapped up, asked Chang about his eating habits, and he said the students are probably doing a better job at getting a nutritious meal.
“I don’t always eat healthy all the time,” Chang admitted. “The healthiest meal I will have all week is probably this one, but I promise I will do better.”