On a recent winter day at a Chicago public high school, "fish tacos" were on the lunch menu.
"Look at this," one student grumbled, flicking at a stiff flour tortilla on her tray. "They give us this with fish sticks and call it a fish taco. That ain't lunch."
The meals may sound like they came from two different worlds, but both were served to low-income Chicago high school students as part of the National School Lunch Program.
It's become accepted wisdom among many school officials that the level of federal reimbursement for meals served through the program — $2.74 per lunch — is too low to cover tasty, nutritious food made from scratch.
But chef Paul Boundas says he serves his scratch-cooked meals to about 4,500 private school students — including about 300 at Holy Trinity — every day for even less than that modest amount.
How does he perform this miracle? That's what some of the nation's top food, nutrition and health care thinkers want to know. So Harvard University and the Culinary Institute of America have invited Boundas to share his secrets at the Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives conference this weekend. Attendees will include U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin.
Harvard's David Eisenberg came to Chicago this year to learn about Boundas' program and became intrigued by its potential to improve public health. "We'd like to see if it is reproducible in other inner-city schools for other children," said Eisenberg, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
Eisenberg said he hopes to find a framework to assess the program's long-term effects "in terms of their physiology, weight, obesity rates, eating habits outside school and education potential over the next several years. … If it impacts obesity, then we have a noble cause to champion."
While some of Boundas' techniques could be employed in the Chicago Public Schools, creating food from scratch is difficult in a system with few highly skilled cooks and no working kitchen in about a third of its schools. The district awards a single food service contract for its 600 schools, discouraging the kind of relatively small, nimble operation Boundas runs.
A CPS spokeswoman said she was not familiar enough with Boundas' program to comment.
Boundas is one of a handful of school lunch innovators nationwide who are emerging from the culinary world — not from a business or nutrition background. Boundas has been in the restaurant business for 15 years (he owns the Country House in Alsip) and is also trained in clinical psychology and the culinary arts. All three have proved essential in winning over his tough customers.
His approach involves easing students gradually into healthier foods, making healthy meals tasty and attractive, hiring a passionate and skilled workforce, adapting his menus to market availability and responding to customer feedback.
"He doesn't tell us what we have to eat," said Holy Trinity senior and vegetarian Valerie Balthazar. "He asks us what we like and then he makes it healthier. My favorite dish is the stir-fried vegetables on top of brown rice. It feels like we are eating food from a restaurant."
When Boundas ushers in healthy menu items, he avoids broadcasting it too loudly. When he switched to whole-grain pasta, for instance, he didn't put up a sign about it until a month later.
So when a student came through the line and said he didn't like whole-grain pasta, the cook was able to respond: "You've been eating it and liking it for four weeks."
Boundas entered the school food arena nine years ago when his Country House Kitchen Co. secured the lunch contract for the upscale Morgan Park Academy on the Southwest Side. He continued honing his scratch food model at Marian Catholic High School in Chicago Heights as well as St. Rita and Mount Carmel in Chicago, all of which serve a more economically diverse population.
But nothing prepared him for the challenges of Holy Trinity, a school with 93 percent low-income students and a money-losing food program.
"We had been trying to do (the food) on our own for a few years and we were losing our shirt," said Holy Trinity President Timothy Bopp. "So when Paul came along, we opened our books to him and wondered if he'd really want to take this on."