In a D.C. school, the simple power of a good breakfast
This is the first of three articles on how food made from scratch using local ingredients is served to the students and staff at Washington Jesuit Academy, a free-tuition private school for at-risk kids.
Chef Duane Drake lines a dozen pie shells on sheet pans and begins filling them for breakfast quiche. First, he scatters freshly torn spinach leaves at the bottom of the shells. Then he begins cutting blocks of Muenster cheese into cubes. He works quickly. “This morning, I’m speedballing,” he explains. Two of his assistants have been out sick. He’s behind with the prep work.
In the walk-in refrigerator, Drake locates a large plastic tub filled with an egg, milk and pesto mixture he made the night before. He begins pouring it into the pie shells and checks the clock: He has only a few minutes to get the quiches into the kitchen’s convection oven and finish baking them before students arrive at 7:30 for breakfast at Washington Jesuit Academy.
Wait a second. Can that be right? Handmade quiche for school breakfast?
Yes, you heard correctly. At this all-boys middle school in Northeast Washington, D.C., all of the meals are made from scratch every day. Not only are the ingredients fresh, most of them are locally grown as well. The eggs and milk, for instance, are from Trickling Springs Creamery in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. The basil and other micro-greens on the menu hail from southern New Jersey. The Muenster cheese is made by Amish Delight in Louisville, Ohio.
When the quiche goes into the oven, Drake will start on lunch: a pasta sauce made with roasted local chicken, hot house plum tomatoes from farms in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, eggplant and other vegetables from a produce auction in Dayton, Virginia. It’s all the brainchild of D.C. Central Kitchen, a social service agency perhaps best known for providing daily meals to thousands of the District of Columbia’s homeless and needy, but now flexing its know-how and local food connections through its own for-profit catering company, Fresh Start, which runs the kitchen at Washington Jesuit Academy. Drake and his crew also are responsible for feeding children and staff at a nearby child-care center, as well as some 18 students in a post-high school training program across town and other catering jobs that come in over the transom. A fleet of D.C. Central Kitchen trucks keeps the food moving.
Washington Jesuit Academy is a “tuition-free middle school offering quality education to disadvantaged boys in the 6th, 7th & 8th grades,” according to its website. The students, Drake’s clients, are 71 “at risk” boys who spend 12 hours each day in the school’s intensive educational program and eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at school. They love the quiche, served on the food line only minutes after it comes out of the oven, warm and fragrant. “It’s very cheesy,” comments one smiling 12-year-old between forkfulls.
After I wrote a series of articles about the woeful state of cafeteria food at my daughter’s elementary school here in the District–most of it highly processed meal components cooked in distant factories and shipped frozen to D.C. schools–I received a number of tips about schools that were taking a different approach, trying to serve students meals more resembling real food and not junk. I decided to see for myself how a stronger commitment to school food–from individual kitchen workers, food companies and school administrators–could result in better food on children’s plates, and how much that might cost.