Should School Cafeterias Be More Like Fast-Casual Restaurants?

A pilot program in one Boston neighborhood could transform the way students eat across the district—and nationwide.


As students stream into the cafeteria at the Manassah E. Bradley Elementary School in East Boston, a buzz builds as they notice what’s for lunch.

“It’s taco day!” one boy yells, adding a joy-filled jig to his exclamation.

Despite the fact he’s brought his lunch from home, the 11-year-old herald enthusiastically hops into the line to have his tray filled with salad greens, whole-grain rice, black beans, seasoned chicken, and a few spears of broccoli—steamed and seasoned minutes before by a chef. Instead of receiving a plastic-wrapped, pre-heated lunch, today’s taco ingredients have been prepared and cooked fresh, then served separately on the line to give students more choice.

The scene more closely resembles lunchtime at a fast casual restaurant like Sweetgreen or Chipotle than an elementary school—and that’s by design. At four schools in East Boston—Bradley Elementary, Patrick J. Kennedy Elementary School, the East Boston Early Education Center, and East Boston High School—a pilot has been underway since May testing the feasibility of cooking meals made with fresher ingredients.

Entrepreneur and philanthropist Jill Shah, whose husband Niraj Shah founded the ecommerce site Wayfair, approached Boston Public Schools and offered to fund and implement a pilot to improve school food in the city’s schools. Last year, looking for the first philanthropic opportunities for the Shah Family Foundation, she visited a few schools, where she said she saw kids “sporking a [plastic-wrapped] waffle stuffed with some kind of syrup.”

“This is not a great way to feed kids. But for a majority of kids, this is the majority of their calories,” said Shah, who found a kindred change-agent in the newly hired Boston Public Schools’ Director of Food and Nutrition Services Laura Benavidez.

“If you have a vision for transformation, there’s no way you do that just with a [U.S. Department of Agriculture] subsidy,” Benavidez said. “Like any good entrepreneurial venture, you need some investment to go out and play around and figure out how does this thing transform?”

It Takes a Village to Feed Kids

Shah tapped a former chief of staff at Boston Public Schools, Ross Wilson, to direct both the foundation and the school food pilot. She then recognized her own limits after “playing around” in this area and instead looked to successful restaurateurs and grocers for guidance.

Veteran chef Ken Oringer has been helping the foundation out with menu creation and staff training, even conducting a knife skills boot camp over the summer. Oringer put together recipes that can be served “deconstructed,” rather than pre-assembled, giving students choices about protein, vegetables, or whether they want salsa on their chicken.

For help purchasing quality ingredients that both meet U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutrition guidelines and the subsidized prices of $3.31 per lunch, program organizers reached out to Doug Rauch, former president of Trader Joe’s and founder of Daily Table, a nonprofit retail store aimed at helping low-income people gain access to more healthy food.

After Rauch bought into the model, he pulled in two of his friends to help with ingredient procurement: former Shop & Stop supermarket CEO José Alvarez and Friendly’s CEO John Maguire. Wilson said food titans like Rauch have helped the participating schools be more active in their procurement, rather than simply accepting the products that arrive on a vendor’s truck.

“How do we use our buying power as a school district of 57,000 kids to create this predictable buying structure so that we can get our costs down and our quality up?” Wilson asked.

Once ingredients arrive, they must be cooked as close to the students as possible, often in decades-old school buildings that do not contain full-service kitchens, a conundrum not uncommon in schools nationwide. In fact, as with school districts across the country, kitchens are not common: Just 43 of Boston’s 125 school buildings are equipped to prepare and cook food on-site.

Working with local managers at Sweetgreen and restaurant designer RealFood Consulting, the Shah Foundation equipped the pilot schools with food preparation stations, dishwashing sinks, rice cookers, and combi-ovens, like the ones found in many fast-casual restaurants—at a cost of between $30,000 and $65,000 per kitchen. Wilson says these ovens, much more than traditional convection ovens, allow staff to cook food “to the right temp, the right consistency—ready to serve on the line.”

A new combi oven in the kitchen at Bradley Elementary.

Take broccoli, for example. To keep it from going soggy, it must be cooked fresh, then served and eaten almost immediately. It’s simply not the same after being reheated or plastic-wrapped, Wilson said, and students barely touch it, if they take it at all. But on taco day at the Bradley, the broccoli out of the combi-oven is hot and crunchy, and students are not only requesting it in the lunch line, they’re devouring it.

“Nothing screams ‘success’ more than when the vegetable is the dish that goes first,” said Benavidez of Boston Public Schools.

In three of the test kitchens, there’s something else you don’t often see in school cafeterias: chefs. Besides the culinary skills they bring to the school kitchens, organizers of the pilot believe that when children see and engage with a formally trained chef, they’re prone to make better food choices.

A Harvard study bears this out. In 2015, researchers from the T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that students were 20-30 percent more likely to choose and consume a fruit or vegetable when a chef was present than students in schools with no chef.

Effort Quickly Takes Off

In the Bradley school kitchen, chef Guy Koppe from Massachusetts-based food security nonprofit Project Bread is running the show. For years he has been working with Massachusetts schools to reform the way they feed kids. He said the pilot being tested is one of the most hopeful projects he’s seen.

For one, he said, “the speed of the change feels different from the way things have gone in the past.” The pilot launched in May, with chef-made meals being prepared at East Boston High School once weekly and delivered to the other three schools in what was being called a “hub and spoke model.”

This fall, the organizers have been testing the feasibility of preparing and cooking the food at all the individual schools, and ramped up the program so that students at each of the pilot schools are now being served scratch-cooked meals five days a week. According to Ross, student participation in school lunches—which, in Boston, are provided free of charge to any student who wants them—was up 15 percent across the board at all four schools.

In foreground, left to right: Jill Shah, Laura Benavidez, Ross Wilson. In background, right to left: Chef Guy Koppe with his staff at Bradley Elementary School.

The speed of change is likely because, for the first time in years, there appears to be a unified front of food service officials, administration, parents, and advocacy groups involved.

Superintendent Tommy Chang made school food a priority when he took office in March of 2015, and last year he hired Benavidez as the district’s food and nutrition services director—a position that had been left vacant for three years. A first step was bringing on a more healthful vendor to bring pre-made lunches to schools without kitchens. After a lengthy vetting process, the district tapped San Francisco-based vendor Revolution Foods. But, longer-term, Benavidez has a vision to “reset the way we serve meals to children.”

Benavidez hopes to make “a business case” for expanding the neighborhood model to other parts of the district. “The program is evolving, children’s tastes and trends are evolving, and we want to be on the forefront rather than behind the trend,” she said.

But the district will likely need more support to outfit additional schools. Chef Ann Cooper, a national school food advocate and director of food services at the Boulder Valley School District, has consulted on the pilot program in East Boston and applauds the public-private model for transformation—even as she advocates for an increase in the federal nutrition subsidy.

“The [Trump Administration] has proposed cutting the USDA budget by more than 20 percent, and that’s where school lunch subsidies come from,” Cooper says. “As that happens, we need to look to these public-private partnerships to make change, because there’s just not the federal role to work on school meals and anti-hunger systems. Either way, it looks like Boston will get a self-operated system, which is always better in my opinion.”

Bringing food production back in-house appears to be the goal of some on Boston Public Schools’ School Committee as well.

At the committee’s October 4 meeting, Chairman Michael D. O’Neill acknowledged that while parents and students are excited about the meals they’re getting from Revolution Foods, they are still “a vendor providing us with food covered in plastic.” O’Neill says he’s “a thousand times more excited” about a model that would bring real cooking back into the schools.

“This,” he said, “is how we’re going to revolutionize food service in Boston Public Schools.”

Photos courtesy of the author.

Leave a Comment

View Comments

  1. Amanda Schroeder
    Tuesday, December 5th, 2017
    Mr. Holt,
    I am so pleased to read about this revolutionary project! Since many children in the United States acquire a third or even two-thirds of their daily calories from meals provided in school, the topic of school nutrition is important to discuss. And I want to congratulate Boston and the whole state of Massachusetts for being so committed to providing quality nutrition to such an important and often overlooked population. We have created an entire system of schools around the nation to enrich the minds of our children, yet so many fail to consider the significance of enriching their bodies as well. Thankfully, the USDA recognized this need and created more appropriate nutritional requirements for the national school lunch program, such as reducing sodium and increasing the use of whole grains. Making these changes is no small task and, as you may know, changes will continue to take place gradually until 2023 to help assuage the growing pains that often accompany stricter regulations. Despite the effort required, we are already seeing positive results! Studies show that students are consuming more food now that the nutrition quality is changing, particularly in regard to entrée and vegetable consumption. If we could implement the same strategies nationwide as these programs in Boston, like cooking food fresh and on-site soon before serving, perhaps these statistics would increase even further. While I understand that cost is a limiting factor for many school districts, it is my hope that programs like these are so wildly successful that, over time, we will see a decrease in health care costs that will more than compensate.
  2. Friday, December 8th, 2017
    Of interest