The Next Iron Chef: School Cafeteria Showdown?

An Open Letter to First Lady Michelle Obama

Dear Michelle,
I am a chef at an independent high school in Northern Vermont. Your work with the White House garden and promoting healthy food choices has been amazing. Presidential food influences have historically meant penchants for jellybeans and Big Macs, unease with grocery stores, vegetables, and scallops, and a general apathy toward the American diet. Now, the White House is producing fresh produce, embracing the local food movement, and even harvesting honey from its own bees!
You have harnessed the power of celebrity to help spread this message. Chefs Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, Emeril Lagasse, and your own Cristeta Comerford have competed on Iron Chef using fresh garden ingredients. The gardens and gardeners themselves are a regular topic of the New York Times and other media outlets. You and your family have been to food shelters and schools. This is such a great beginning.
One topic that hasn’t seen the change it desperately needs is the USDA commodity foods program, and I have a suggestion. A brief background:
Here in Vermont, over 50% of my students have some form of government assistance to pay for their school meals; other communities get as high as 85%. My budget is less than $1.50 per student for lunch. That won’t buy a Starbucks latte, but we manage to make fresh bread and soup every day. Our students can get local apples, and on breakfast for lunch day (a favorite) we use real maple syrup from a local sugar house. To afford the good, we take advantage of USDA commodities.
These include products like Beef Patties, an amalgam of beef, soy protein, and seasoning. As these come precooked, we have to work food magic to make them moist and palatable. The turkey breast comes as a foot-and-a-half-long log that’s full of water and excess salt. Cheese is as tasteless as packing material and has an unnaturally long shelf life. I hear schools aren’t even willing to compost these products at the end of the year for fear of what contaminants they’ll leave in the soil.
Most Americans don’t know that this is what their children are being fed. Demand for change will come with knowledge, and the best way to spread knowledge these days is with reality television. I suggest another round of Iron Chef White House.
This time Bobby and Mario should go head to head with school service directors and chefs, with the mystery ingredients coming straight from the USDA commodity list! We all dream of fresh produce from kitchen gardens for our school, but it isn’t reality. As one of my mentors is fond of saying, it isn’t hard cooking with the good stuff. Lets see if the celebrity chefs can match the inventiveness that is required of the people that feed our children every day. Is Alton Brown able to explain the commodity production policy? Will soy tacos and turkey loaf tetrazzini win the day? Who will reign supreme? My money is on the school chef.

Thank you for your time. I look forward to hearing from your staff.

Chef Bryan C. Andregg, Lyndon Institute, Lyndonville Vermont

Mark Bittman, New York Times Columnist and Award Winning Author
Chef Ann Cooper, Renegade Lunch Lady and Award Winning Author
Dr. June Stevens, Chair of the Department of Nutrition, UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health
Dr. Robert Myers, President, New England Culinary Institute
Chef Bill Smith, James Beard Award Nominated Chef and Author
Katherine Simms, Executive Director, Green Mountain Farm to School
Louise Calderwood, Adjunct Professor, Sterling College
Chef Jim Birmingham, Chef Instructor, New England Culinary Institute
Ryan Dillon, The Liberty Hotel


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