Is the Chicago School Food “Miracle” for Real?

Over TLT’s spring break, several people sent me a link to a Chicago Tribune story entitled “Miracle Worker in the School Kitchen,” a story which got a lot of play on Twitter and in the blogging world right after it appeared.  The article features Paul Boundas, a chef who has taken over the school food at Holy Trinity High School in Wicker Park and is serving meals like “white [fish] fillets . . . in a crunchy panko-cornmeal crust or baked in olive oil, lemon and herbs, with collard-flecked teriyaki brown rice, olive oil roasted potatoes, steamed broccoli and freshly squeezed lemonade.”  Sounds amazing, right?

Even more amazing:

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.

Whenever I see stories like this, in which a school or a school district seems to be doing something “miraculous,” I’m immediately skeptical.  Not because I don’t want to believe that such “miracles” can happen, but because I’ve spent enough time immersed in this issue in my own district to know that there are many real world obstacles — notably labor costs, the lack of facilities and the cost of buying and storing fresh food — which make such miracles very hard to replicate in many school districts in America.

I tweeted Monica Eng, the reporter behind this story, to ask follow-up questions about this particular school’s circumstances, but she hasn’t yet replied to me.  In the meantime, I turned to my most trusted resource for “real world” school food information, San Francisco school food reformer Dana Woldow.  Dana had already seen the story and wrote back the following thoughts to me (edited a bit here):

How many kids does this school or program serve? The answer in this case is 280 in a small Catholic high school. There are things you can do in a small school (like feed all the kids in one lunch period) that don’t work when scaled up to a school trying to feed a population of 2,000 kids in 40 minutes.  What do they pay their labor?  This is a private parochial school (ie – likely not union).  What are the school’s kitchen facilities like, as compared to the typical public school serving a 93% low income population, and how were they paid for? Are they an open campus at lunchtime?  Probably not, and when you keep the kids on campus for lunch, cafeteria participation soars. And has their program passed a recent inspection by the USDA?  Just a few questions to raise. . . .

Dana then told me that she was coincidentally putting the finishing touches on an article for her soon-to-be launched website (more on that exciting development to come!), entitled, “How to Know If Your School Can Do What Another School Does.”  And guess what?  She is allowing The Lunch Tray to publish the piece as a guest blog post, coming your way later today.

Stay tuned!


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