Healthier choices on school lunch menus

Chef John Turenne preparing quesadillas for students at Mill Hill Elementary School Feb. 7. The food was made from scratch using fresh ingredients: Whole wheat tortillas, cheese, broccoli, parsley and whole garlic. (Laura Modlin Photo)

As students at Mill Hill Elementary School settled into lunch in the school’s cafeteria Feb. 7, they were greeted by a celebrity — a chef who is becoming a superstar for championing better food for schools.

During all six lunch periods that day, John Turenne, founder and president of Sustainable Food Systems, rallied the children in support of “good, healthy, cool school food” and provided samples of that day’s hot lunch.

Quesadillas — prepared fresh with whole wheat tortillas, broccoli, parsley, garlic, and cheese — got rousing support, with lots of thumbs-up.

Answering the call

Turenne began revamping school lunches in Fairfield this past fall. He was brought in thanks to the efforts of some vocal and passionate parent advocates.

“The community spoke out,” Turenne said.

It was a long time coming.

Fuel for Learning Partnership, the PTA council committee that worked to bring more healthful options to school lunches, believes having Sustainable Food Systems working with the district is an amazing opportunity.

“Parent advocates are grateful to Fairfield school food services for hiring John Turenne, whose experience and knowledge about how to improve school food is unparalleled,” Tara Cook-Littman, chairman of Fuel for Learning Partnership, said.

Turenne sees himself as a liaison between the community and the town’s school kitchens.

“I consider myself a bridge builder between passionate advocate parents and those who have to work in the kitchen,” Turenne said.

Parents have noticed.

The mother of Ian, a fourth grader, has given the new lunches her seal of approval, according to the 9-year-old.

His mother used to say that Ian and his sister, a middle school student in Fairfield, could not eat the school’s hot lunches. She changed her mind this year.

“Mom didn’t want us to have hot lunches last year,” Ian said. “But this year she said it’s OK.”

And kids think the food is better for them, too.

Ethan, a third grader, said the food is better this year because it’s healthier.

“Last year, they would give us choices of cookies,” he said. “This year, they give us fruit and vegetables instead of cookies.”

Catherine, also a third grader, prefers the bread selection this year.

“They used to have white bread,” she said. “They have whole grain now and it tastes better.”

Cameron, a fifth grader, said that healthier food is a good idea.

“I think everyone needs to be healthy,” Cameron said.

The school administration agrees.

“We are very pleased to work with John Turenne,” schools Superintendent Dr. David G. Title said. “His expertise will help us meet and exceed the new federal guidelines for healthy school lunches by serving high-quality, nutritious and tasty meals to our 10,000 students every day.”

Joann Fitzpatrick, manager of Food and Nutrition Services, is pleased to have Turenne working with the staff, and she is glad he has received a positive reception from the children.

“Students have been excited to see Chef John visit their schools,” she said.

Turenne’s background

Turenne has seen a transition recently among younger children toward understanding the importance of healthy eating.

“I believe the younger generation [elementary school kids] are beginning to learn, much like the anti-tobacco campaign a decade ago, that food can have severe impacts, good and bad, on their health,” Turenne said.

So he is putting an emphasis on the younger children.

“I wanted to pay particular attention to the elementary school kids,” he said.

When Turenne started his career as chef at large institutions 33 years ago, things were a lot different, for the country and for him. His job was to focus on money.

“My focus was always on the bottom line,” he said.

The Wallingford resident worked at large institutions around the state, including Wesleyan University, Choate Rosemary Hall and Yale University.

Eight years ago, while working at Yale, his career turned a corner.

The school began developing the Yale Sustainable Food Project, which “fosters a culture that draws meaning and pleasure from the connections among people, land, and food,” according to the project’s website.

“I had an epiphany,” Turenne said.

He started to get passionate about sustainability.

“It impacts community, farms, employee rights, and our body,” Turenne said.

He began Sustainable Food Systems and has become a nationally recognized leader and innovator in good food practices. And he has been helping schools around the country.

Along the way, he has worked with the Obama administration on the development of the USDA’s Chefs Move to Schools initiative. He was also the behind-the-scenes consultant on the award-winning ABC Television show Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution as part of a team of school food innovators and experts.

Eventually he was led to Fairfield, where he is working to enhance the school lunch program with local, sustainable and healthy food made from scratch.

Part of the solution

Earlier in the school year, Turenne did “culinary boot camps” for all of Fairfield’s school cooks.

“We’re trying to adhere to the new national lunch guidelines that the USDA puts out,” Turenne said.

But he wants to do it differently from the example he often sees.

“Most schools meet [the] guidelines with processed food,” Turenne said. “We’re trying to do it with fresh food.”

The success of the program depends on the community though.

During the lunch periods on Feb. 7, 400 children were eating lunch at Mill Hill Elementary School, but only 125 were buying the hot lunch.

The number of students buying hot lunches needs to continue to increase in order for the program to thrive. That comes down to the parents.

“I find kids are more receptive to eating good choices when they have been exposed at home,” Turenne said.

He hopes parents will take some time to explore the new school lunch options.

“Parents should know more about the improvements to the hot lunch options in Fairfield and suggest their children choose that over the bagel or cereal options, or a lunch from home,” Turenne said.

Input is welcome.

“It’s a community program,” Turenne said. “Come in for lunch. Tell the food service director what [you] like and what [you’d] like to see changed.”

The Fairfield Public Schools Food Service Department recently received the distinguished U.S. Department of Agriculture Healthier U.S. School Challenge Bronze Award for its elementary schools.

The Healthier U.S. School Challenge is a voluntary certification initiative established in 2004. It recognizes those schools participating in the National School Lunch Program that have created healthier school environments through the promotion of nutrition and physical activity.

Sustainable Food Systems’ Fairfield Public Schools lunch initiative consists of 16 district schools: two high schools, three middle schools and 11 elementary schools.

Turenne believes Fairfield Public Schools “can lead the way and be an example for how to go about providing delicious and nutritious meals to our children.”

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