Cafeteria kitchenA group of chefs and parents plan to turn Tyler Elementary’s kitchen-cum-makeshift-office into a place to cook actual food.(Ed Bruske photos)

A group of prominent Washington, D.C.-area restaurant chefs has volunteered to introduce a novel concept in school-food service to one Capitol Hill elementary school: collaborating with parents to take over kitchen operations on a nonprofit basis, replacing the prepackaged, reheated factory meals that Tyler Elementary kids currently eat with food cooked from scratch, served on real plates with real cutlery.

Led by Cathal Armstrong, chef and owner of Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Va., the group would undo the historically knotty issue of school food finances by putting parents to work in the cafeteria as voluteers, and using the savings in labor to buy better food, much of it from local growers. The proposal has been approved by D.C. Public Schools’ food services division but is still being reviewed by the procurement division — meaning much paperwork, red tape, and potential snags remain between now and August 23, when classes resume.

Cathal Armstrong on a visit to TylerChef Cathal Armstrong on a recent visit to TylerArmstrong, who was a 2009 James Beard nominee for “Best Mid-Atlantic Chef,” is an outspoken advocate of fresh, local foods. He sits on the board of Fresh Farm Markets, which operates several farmers markets in the city. His involvement with Tyler Elementary stems from a meeting last year with White House assistant chef and food advisory Sam Kass, whose title was recently upgrade to senior policy adviser For Healthy Food Initiatives. This appears to be the first time that First Lady Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign has extended its reach into a school food service operation.

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Last October, Kass provided chefs with a list of local schools to visit and urged them to find a way to get involved in improving school food. Armstrong was assigned to Tyler Elementary at 1001 G Street SE, an economically diverse school with 300 students, 81 percent black and 12 percent white. Sixty percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price meals in the federally subsidized meal program.

Armstrong said he was alarmed by the food he saw being served at the school by the school system’s contracted food service provider, Chartwells. “It was just awful stuff,” he said. In January, he met with other chefs at Brasserie Beck, where he reportedly said, “What we are feeding our children is an outrage. We should be marching with picket signs and pitchforks in revolution.” Armstrong subsequently formed a non-profit corporation — Chefs as Parents — to fund and operate a school venture.

Among the group’s goals: “Get rid of all processed foods filled with preservatives, additives, food coloring, and other chemicals. Find local farmers, ranchers and dairies from which to buy directly. Find foods that are at their peak of ripeness,” as well as “organic or sustainably produced to the maximum extent possible.” And “send positive messages about eating to children and lure them into the kitchen.” Allison Erdle, executive director of Chefs as Parents, said yesterday that the group is seeking financial donations, but already has pledges for up to $100,000 to fund the start-up at Tyler Elementary.

It was still unclear exactly what role parents will play — most likely not cooking food, but perhaps serving meals from the steam table, clearing dishes, and otherwise assisting with meal service in the cafeteria. School meals have always been hamstrung by poor financing. The federal government currently provides $2.68 to the schools to offer a fully subsidized school lunch, but most of that goes to pay for labor and overhead, leaving only about $1 for meal ingredients. As a result, many schools don’t actually cook at all, but rely on reheating cheap, industrially processed convenience foods — those famous chicken nuggets and tater tots — for their cafeteria menus. Reducing the labor end of the equation, in this case by substituting parent volunteers, would free up cash to purchase better ingredients.

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Under the proposal that the group submitted to D.C. Public Schools, the chefs would train and hire a full-time chef to run the Tyler Elementary kitchen; other paid staff may be needed. The group would “start with a menu comprised of simple, delicious, and kid-friendly meals,” says the proposal, which also foresees “integration of food and cooking into the academic curriculum through kitchen and garden classroom … We plan to include the children where possible in cooking workshops and invite teachers to work with us to integrate the kitchen and garden into their lessons.”

Health education is part of the proposal, too. The meal program will work with “nutrition professionals to address the larger issues at hand caused by type-2 diabetes and childhood obesity, as well as linking food and meals with behavioral and other issues.”

With only a few weeks left to go before school resumes, Armstrong and his cohorts were piecing the project together on the fly. Armstrong met with about 20 Tyler Elementary parents last week at the home of one of the parent organizers, Dan Traster. “People work, and they’re concerned about whether they’ll be able to make the time to help in the cafeteria,” Traster said. “But we have many parents who are really passionate about the food issue. They want to do whatever they can.” He added that he’s already getting calls from parents eager to participate. Traster said he thought it would be “a miracle” if the chefs actually managed to serve meals on the first day of school, but he thought they could be up and running sometime in September or early October.

Armstrong was at Tyler yesterday to inspect its ancient kitchen and conduct an inventory of equipment needs, taking photographs of everything in sight. He found a space with lots of room to walk around in, and enough to house temporary offices for school staff, but only a gas-fired convection oven for actual cooking. The oven has been used to reheat the packaged meals trucked in from a factory in suburban Maryland. The chefs group, which includes Robert Wiedmaier of Brasserie Beck, R.J. Cooper, formerly of Vidalia, and noted pastry chef David Guas, hopes to turn the space into a fully operational kitchen with equipment donated by manufacturers, including a stove, a dishwasher, and sinks.

Tyler Elementary is undergoing renovations. The cafeteria had been being used to store all sorts of tables, chairs, shelving, filing boxes, and other paraphernalia. But Armstrong said he was happy with with he saw — especially the big gas line leading to the cooking area, the commercial-quality exhaust hood, and a newly installed steam table.

The project seems like a page from the past, when PTAs ran some school cafeterias. But could this be the future of school food — cooking for kids turned into a charitable cause?

Said Armstrong: “It’s the only way.”

A version of this post appeared on the Slow Cook.