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Food Program Puts Farm-Fresh Veggies Into P.S. 11's Cafeteria

By Mathew Katz | January 27, 2012 9:49am
Fourth-graders Kai and Jonah enjoy their lunch at P.S. 11.
Fourth-graders Kai and Jonah enjoy their lunch at P.S. 11.
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DNAinfo/Mathew Katz

CHELSEA — There are amazing things happening in the cafeteria of P.S. 11.

Instead of biting into fatty chicken nuggets and snacking on greasy French fries, kids are feasting on farm fresh kale, collard greens and other veggies.

"I like the stuff from the garden and from the farm," excited fourth-grader Eva, 9, said. "They're more tastier."

When they're not enjoying green stuff, children at the school are eating Spanish rice and whole pieces of chicken. Fourth-grader Jonah, for one, said he's felt healthier since eating the school's lunches.

"They're healthy," he said. "They make you feel good — not bad like junk food."

P.S. 11 at 320 W. 21st St. has managed to combine several food programs to become something of a holy grail for the local, sustainable and organic food-in-school movements. Children at the school grow their own veggies in a garden, have lunches made by a professional chef, and even run their own farmer's market.

Most importantly, the school is the first in the city to use food grown on local farms — left over from its student-run farmer's market — in its cafeteria, though the school's staff said that didn't come without a fight.

"We were getting all this great food [for the farmer's market], but we were not allowed to do anything with it," said Principal Bob Bender. "So we pushed the Department of Education."

Up until last year, the school had to give away any of the farmer's market produce it didn't sell. When Bender and Deborah Osborne, P.S. 11's after-school director, asked DOE officials if they could serve it in the cafeteria, they were skeptical.

The school had to send over soil tests to the department's central office and prepare reports. After months, they eventually got the okay.

"We finally got approval," Bender said. "Now we can serve what we have in the garden and what’s left over from farm market."

The school's able to use veggies from Stoneledge Farm in South Cairo, NY, along with flash-frozen local produce from Winter Sun Farms.

Because of the variety of farm-fresh ingredients the school can use, it's able to craft a unique menu for its students that differs from standard Department of Education servings.

"Our kitchen staff isn't opening cans," Osborne said. "They're making flatbread pizzas with homemade tomato sauce and chilis from scratch."

The push for healthier food in schools has ramped up in recent years. On Wednesday, the Obama administration announced new rules for school food programs, which will add more fruits and vegetables to cafeteria menus.

The school has made numerous other changes over the past five years, which have helped it gain a reputation for having one of the city's top food programs.

All of the school's food is cooked with olive oil which parents pitched in to pay for. There's a salad bar available in the cafeteria every day, too.

"I say I was the most hated principal in all of Christendom when I banned chocolate milk," Bender said sheepishly.

Despite the lack of sugary drinks, Bender said kids at the school love to grow their own food, or get it from a nearby farm.

"I like to know how they grow our food," said Kai, 9, who hopes to visit one of the farms. "Plus, I want to see people milking a cow."

Another student, Emma, threw some salad and a dollop of homemade dressing next to her chicken — a regular addition to her plate.

"I think the salad is really good," she said. "It's healthy. It's sweet."

The Wellness in the Schools program helps the school have its own full-time professional chef, Cynthia Tomasini, who's been whipping up meals and teaching kids to cook at the school since September.

"We're able to put together a menu that encourages a plant-based diet with an emphasis on freshness," Tomasini said. "I love coming into the kitchen and showing the kids how to make an item they'll see on our monthly menu."

The kids are taught to value foods that are organic, local and seasonal, and to follow their veggies from the farm — either their own or ones upstate — to the kitchen and onto their plates.

Matilda Brooker, a parent with two boys at P.S. 11, said the program has transformed the way her kids look at food.

"The farmer's market, we buy all our veggies from there," she said. "It's a no-brainer, really. It's good, healthy food for the kids."