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Cook for America co-founder Kate Adamick discusses the vital role food service workers, or Lunch Teachers, play in creating a healthier school food culture, and feeding and educating the next generation.
What’s the relationship between the cafeteria and the classroom?

Kate Adamick: Sadly, the relationship between the cafeteria and the classroom is often nonexistent. All too frequently, school administrators appear to have forgotten that students don’t stop learning just because it’s lunchtime. At Cook for America®, we deliberately call the school food service workers “Lunch Teachers as a reminder to everyone that what students are fed at school teaches them how to think about food, what to think of as food, and how to behave while consuming it—all lessons that they will carry with them for the remainder of their lives.

What challenges do food service workers face in providing healthy, from-scratch meals?

Kate Adamick: “Lunch Teachers,” like the rest of us, are victims of a widespread, corporate-sponsored misinformation campaign designed to convince us that school food reform is too expensive, that kids won’t eat real food, and that preparing meals using raw meat products is dangerous. In reality, none of these perceived challenges turn out to be actual obstacles for most school districts.

One of the genuine challenges, however, is that “Lunch Teachers” have become easy and obvious scapegoats for the high rates of childhood obesity. When the people who are responsible for feeding our children feel blamed rather than empowered, the path to school food reform can be a long one. The national obesity crisis and the poor quality of the average school meal are merely symptoms of America’s broken food system, the myriad causes of which include campaign finance laws, farm subsidies favoring corporate agriculture, and ubiquitous marketing campaigns targeting children. Simply blaming Lunch Teachers for those greater societal maladies will not improve the quality of school food or the health of our children.

How does your work address those challenges?

Kate Adamick: While there may never be a single successful approach to restoring our nation’s citizens and food system to full health, Cook for America creates a new paradigm in which school food becomes a powerful and effective part of the solution by building a school food service workforce that is not only capable of preparing healthy, scratch-cooked meals from whole, fresh foods within its operating budget, but that is also empowered and motivated to do so.

Distinguishing our approach from that of other school food reform projects is its emphasis on holistic, systemic change. While thousands of schools across the country have implemented salad bar programs and school gardens in recent years, children are given mixed messages about food when their schools continue to serve entrées such as chicken nuggets, beef dippers, and corn dogs. To help turn well-meaning intentions into meaningful outcomes, we focus on what professional chefs refer to as “the center of the plate,” otherwise known as the entrée.

The cornerstone of Cook for America is its five-day Culinary Boot Camps, which provide concentrated and comprehensive culinary training in such basic competencies as food safety and sanitation, culinary math, time management, basic knife skills, menu planning, and foundational cooking techniques related to proteins, grains, legumes, vegetables, sauces, and baked items. A critical step towards professionalizing the school food work environment and workforce, the Culinary Boot Camps build skills, confidence, awareness, and motivation among their participants.

What effect have these trainings had on food service staff?

Kate Adamick: Foremost among our goals is increasing the level of self-respect among school food service workers who, all too often, feel as if they are the least important staff members in a school district’s hierarchy. “Lunch Teachers” who complete the Culinary Boot Camp enthusiastically embrace their new responsibility to lead school food reform efforts in their own districts, and are proud of their essential role in teaching children about the pleasures and benefits of eating real food prepared in a healthful manner.

After the Culinary Boot Camps, we keep in touch with our Lunch Teachers through the “Lunch Teachers” Facebook page and the Cook for America website. We receive dozens of emails, notes, and photographs from program graduates excitedly telling us about how they’re using their new skills to transform school food in their districts into a solution to the childhood obesity crisis.

What changes are needed at the policy or district level to support these transformations?

Kate Adamick: Unfortunately, our children can’t afford to wait for our nation’s policymakers to turn their attention to them. As a result, parents and school administrators need to make school food reform a priority. The first and most important change that must be made at the district level is one of attitude. As Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.”

What does the food movement mean to you?

Kate Adamick: To me, the food movement means exactly that: returning—as a nation—to the consumption of food. Real food. Not products that have been freeze-dried, pre-cooked, concentrated, vacuum-packed, genetically modified, sprayed with myriad pesticides, derived from animals injected with a virtual pharmacy of antibiotics and hormones, and loaded with ingredients that even a chemistry major can’t pronounce. To me, real food is food that my great-grandparents would have immediately recognized when they were young. It doesn’t come with a label.

About Kate Adamick

Co-founder of Cook for America Kate Adamick, JD, is a nationally recognized expert in food systems who combines her skills as a both a lawyer and a professional chef to integrate operational changes, school-based programming, and public-private partnerships to implement, reinforce and support the healthful transformation of school meal programs to scratch-cooked meals.

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