wjaMeal time at the Washington Jesuit Academy. Photo: Ed Brukse

This is the third of three articles detailing how food made from scratch using local ingredients is served to students at the Washington Jesuit Academy in Northeast Washington, D.C. The first is here; the second here

Prior to hiring Fresh Start Catering a year ago to make meals from scratch, food at the Washington Jesuit Academy was very much like the stuff served at the public elementary school my daughter attends: re-heated convenience food. Administrators at the private, tuition-free middle school for “at risk” boys knew they needed to make a change. Too often the students were listless, cranky, and out-of-focus after meals. The school now pays 30 percent more for meals prepared from fresh, mostly local ingredients in their own kitchen.

The change meant an additional $60,000 a year — for a total food budget of about $220,000 — but the school’s board of directors didn’t bat an eye, said Headmaster Joseph Powers. “We justify this simply: This is what is best for our boys.” he said. “They eat three meals a day with us and we have an obligation to provide the best possible meals we can.”

Mostly the increase is tied up in labor. The academy has four cooks in the kitchen making meals from scratch for 71 boys and 20 staff, as well as children and staff at a nearby day care center and 18 students enrolled in a post-high school training program across town. At my daughter’s public school, where the closest thing to cooking involves dumping frozen chicken tenders into a steamer, three kitchen ladies are all it takes to feed 300 kids every day.

The trend in public schools has been to hire less trained kitchen personnel who don’t work enough hours to qualify for benefits. Cooks start at $12.75 an hour an hour at Fresh Start and are entitled to a benefit package that includes paid health insurance, short-term and long tern disability insurance, and a life insurance policy for free, two weeks paid vacation, plus eight paid personal or sick days and  50 cents on a dollar matching contribution to a retirement plan.

Sosna said Fresh Start operates on a 15 percent profit margin.   

“There’s been a dramatic improvement from what the food used to be,” said reading and social studies instructor John Scheibel. “There’s lots more fruits and vegetables. And lots more taste. It’s a lot less institutional.”

Despite all the improvements and increased expense, however, a random sampling of student comments turns up a litany of grievances.

“I don’t really like the vegetables,” said one. “A lot of time they’re either overcooked or undercooked.”

“They make too much soup,” groused another. “We’d rather have solid food. And sometimes they put leftovers in the soup.”

 “See this right here?” said a third, holding up a roasted carrot speared on the end of his fork. “This is dry. I hate dry carrots.”

If my visit to Washington Jesuit Academy proves anything, it’s that kids can’t be depended upon to make their own food choices. Unlike most public schools, where food service caters to kids’ worst instincts, the boys at Washington Jesuit Academy either eat what’s served, or don’t eat. Here is one instance where adults actually decide what’s best for children, and not the other way around.

But it would be foolish for grownups to assume they can wave a magic wand and make kids like healthier foods, especially when the kids in question grow up surrounded by a culture of junk. From what I saw during repeat visits to the academy, a lot of the vegetables so painstakingly sourced and lovingly prepared by Fresh Start ended up in the trash. The first day it was roasted carrots and snow peas. The second day it was an Asian braise of cabbage and onions and baby corn. The adults wolfed it down. The kids — not so much.

Nor did they particularly attack the salad bar that had been assembled with such care and such a huge variety of different greens and vegetables. Or the soups — especially the fish soup and the corn chowder finished with grass-fed cream from a local dairy. No, what I saw were kids behaving very much like kids: clamoring for pasta, inhaling macaroni and cheese, rioting over baked potatoes. The chicken noodle soup was more popular. In fact, I watched one boy drain a whole bowl full of noodles out of a pot at the soup station to eat with the plate of salmon croquettes, macaroni and cheese, and cabbage braise he got in the food line.

But look what the kids are drinking with these meals: water, not sodas, nor the flavored milk served in public school that might as well be Mountain Dew. Just water. I didn’t hear any complaints about that.

The good news is, influencing kids’ eating habits is a process, not an event. Patience is key. As any chef who’s worked with children can tell you, it often takes a dozen or more attempts to get a child to try and actually like something new.  At Washington Jesuit Academy, the boys are getting attention from multiple directions.

First, the facilities. At my daughter’s school, there is no stove. Scrambled eggs were cooked in Minnesota with 11 other industrial ingredients and shipped frozen to D.C. where they were simply heated in a steamer. At the Jesuit Academy, they have something in the kitchen called a “tilt skillet,” or a very large griddle with tall sides in which you can easily scramble many dozens of eggs fresh. There’s also a stove, a convection oven and, in a separate room, a commercial dishwasher. No styrofoam trays here. Except at breakfast, when there’s not enough staff to wash dishes, the boys eat from non-disposable plastic plates, bowls and cups and use real metal cutlery, not plastic “sporks.”

The kitchen staff is engaged with the food and with the students. After the meal, boys wander in and out of the kitchen, joking and teasing with the cooks, getting a hug or a squeeze or a punch in the arm to go with a little friendly guidance. The school has a “social club” — nine boys — who meet on Wednesdays to help in the kitchen and get cooking lessons. Last year, the school organized a trip to a local farm to harvest vegetables and see where food actually comes from.

The school administration is one step ahead of Michele Obama and her “Let’s Move” campaign. More than a year ago they implemented a wellness program with more physical activity and classroom instruction on better eating habits, the risks of drugs, alcohol, and sex. “We spend a considerable amount of time at each grade level discussing the importance of eating right and how to go about doing that,” said Powers. “This lines up perfectly with our new food service program.”

Andy Deyell, dean of students, led me outside the dining hall to a new sports field freshly covered with artificial turf. Tractors were busy pushing dirt around an area to be paved. “We want to get these boys moving,” said Deyell. “We want to get them eating well.” The new field is marked for football, soccer and lacrosse. Deyell said the school will be adding four new sports to its program, in addition to basketball and football.

The boys get 3.5 hours each week for team sports, in addition to 50 minutes every day for recess and 1.5 hours per week for physical education. Powell said the new wellness classes easily fit into the existing curriculum. The school day at Washington Jesuit Academy is 12 hours long. “Our test scores continue to show tremendous growth even with the amount of time devoted to physical exercise,” Powers said.

Dinner that night was baked potatoes. The potatoes came from a produce auction in Dayton, Va., 145 miles southwest of Washington, where Fresh Start sources much of its produce through its parent organization, D.C. Central Kitchen. One of the cooks, Derek Nelson, stays late to cover the dinner service at 4:45 pm.

Nelson had spent part of the afternoon wrapping the spuds individually in aluminum foil before placing them in the convection oven. On the salad bar he arranged the garnishes: a pot of sour cream, grated cheddar cheese, blanched broccoli florets, sliced mushrooms, freshly chopped chives.

A great clamor arose as the students jostled around the food line to collect their plates. Soon they were helping themselves to heaps of sour cream and cheddar cheese.

“Wow, we haven’t seen this is a long time,” one of the boys remarked. “They must have made this because you’re here,” he said, pointing at me, the visiting reporter. “We usually have soup.”

I couldn’t help being impressed by how excited these boys were over such a simple meal. Simple, but good.