Red tape tangles chefs wanting to improve school lunch

Chicago chef Della Gosset makes vanilla ice cream with help from kindergartner Tatum Merges, 6, at Disney II Elementary Magnet School in Chicago. (Nancy Stone/Tribune)

When top Chicago chefs visited a Northwest Side lunchroom this fall and found bags of Tostitos with ground meat as the main course, their first instinct was to roll up their sleeves and start cooking.

Within a month, the group of chefs — who call themselves Pilot Light — had organized a day of in-class demonstrations and a Thanksgiving-themed lunch for Disney II Elementary Magnet School.

But while faculty and parents were thrilled, Chicago Public Schools officials were not. When district officials caught wind of the event, they called it off until they could discuss just what these cooks were up to, the chefs said.

Eventually, a modified version of the event — the "lunch" was renamed a "tasting" and served alongside regular CPS fare — was allowed to take place last week. But in the process the chefs got a taste of the steep barriers involved in making even small changes to the National School Lunch Program.

"It's pretty difficult to cook in a system with so many layers and limitations," said Matthias Merges, a CPS parent and former executive chef at Charlie Trotter's. "It's going to be tough to get across our initial vision for the project in an atmosphere that is so territorial and bureaucratic, but we are learning and going to keep trying."

Ironically enough, these obstacles are especially daunting in CPS, the home district of first lady Michelle Obama, who inspired the formation of Pilot Light with her call for chefs to adopt schools last summer. Chefs in other cities have launched successful pilot programs to improve the food served to some students, but CPS officials have consistently opposed such small initiatives, especially those that affect school food.

"Our real desire for chefs working with schools is for them to make an impact districtwide," school food chief Louise Esaian said this fall when asked about the possibility of chefs working with single schools to improve the food served. "We have a philosophy that the changes we make to the schools should be far-reaching and we really want them to reach all of the schools. So if they can benefit one school, we'd want them to benefit all of the schools."

The district has not ignored Obama's "Chefs Move to School" initiative. In October it matched dozens of area chefs with interested schools and encouraged them to visit the schools, read books to students and conduct a vegetable tasting.

"We are excited to learn and know about chefs who want to recommend options to our menus, and we welcome their input," said CPS spokeswoman Monique Bond. "The key for CPS is that the changes are sustainable, consistent, and can withstand the budgetary realities."

The Pilot Light chefs hope to offer more than input. In early meetings, they batted around ideas including pop-up restaurants, food trucks, even presenting weekly lunches at schools — only to learn that existing food service contracts, the government's lunch reimbursement system, nearly nonexistent cooking facilities and district rules all stood in the way.

For instance, even if the chefs cook and donate free gourmet meals, they could end up losing money for the district by decreasing the number of kids who took the "official" school lunch, thus lowering the government meal reimbursement that goes to the district and to the caterer.

"We still have some lofty goals," Blackbird chef Paul Kahan said while waiting for kindergarteners to file in for lunch at Disney II. "But for now, I guess we'll just be testing the waters, starting a garden and planning the spring event. The idea is for this school to be our pilot where we hone down our mission and see what's possible."

Over the last few months, the group has been consulting with other chefs who have tried to work with CPS. Some shared stories of success with after-school programs, but others had less positive experiences.

Chef Greg Christian, who founded the self-funded Organic School Project in three CPS schools in 2006, shared encouragement and warnings about likely pitfalls. Among Christian's frustrations with the district was its refusal to let him offer meals to the neediest kids in his program. He had permission to feed organic meals to students in a Lincoln Park school but was never allowed to serve them to the schools in Grand Boulevard and Little Village. The food program folded last year.

The chefs also have drawn inspiration from success stories in other districts around the nation.

In at least three U.S. cities, former chefs or restaurateurs have cooked up change as the heads of school food. In Baltimore, Tony Geraci has launched meatless Mondays and a 33-acre farm and is working on a central kitchen to do scratch cooking for the district. Ann Cooper is working to transform lunch in Boulder, Colo.

And in Washington, Jeffrey Mills got rid of flavored milks and many sugary items this year while also giving the green light to a chef — Cathal Armstrong — to take over meal preparation at a needy school.

While Pilot Light is still in its infancy, the high profile of its membership offers tremendous potential to bring attention to school food in Chicago and to raise money. Chefs hail from Big Star, Blackbird, Charlie Trotter's, The French Pastry School, Lula Cafe, MK, Moto, Perennial and Vie. Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill is set to join the dream team for their next event in the spring.

New York chef and parent Bill Telepan, who has transformed lunch at 19 city schools with the blessing of district officials and under a public health crusading mayor, Michael Bloomberg, said institutional support and openness to pilot programs are essential to success.