Photo Gallery | Project Bread's 'Chefs in School' visit Williams Elementary
PITTSFIELD — Friday pizza day remains a perennial favorite in school cafeterias, but at Williams Elementary School on Friday, samples of chicken pot pie also seemed to please the palates of a typically picky population of eaters — kids.
The new menu item was served in a new way — by two friendly chefs dressed in black coats and hats stationed on the lunchroom floor rather than in the lunch tray line. Instead of an actual pie, the filling of chicken, carrots, peas, potatoes, celery and fresh parsley in a light gravy was spooned into cups and garnished with homemade biscuits.
After she enjoyed her pizza, salad and sample, first-grader Armoni Sutton-Davies went back up to Chef Sam, aka Sam Icklan, and asked for more. And more. And more.
"I think it's awesome," Armoni said. "See? I ate four cups! It's just so good."
The new recipe and chefs are at Williams Elementary and all the other schools in the Pittsfield Public school district through Project Bread's "Chefs in School" program, a first-in-the-nation initiative.
Established in Boston in 2006, the state-funded program partners professional chefs and school cooks. It opened grant opportunities to Western Massachusetts this school year and Pittsfield food service and school nutrition director Sylvana Bryan was one of the first to apply.
Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless said it was an easy effort to support.
"You must be so proud of your schools and your community for being open to this," said Project Bread Executive Director Ellen Parker, who also visited Williams on Friday.
"I was tickled with Project Bread and their decision to expand the program," Bryan said Friday. "It's been around for several years but there was never funding to bring a chef to this area, so this is wonderful."
This year, state funding enabled Project Bread to hire three additional chefs and expand the program to six commonwealth communities, serving nearly 20,000 students this year alone. In the Pittsfield Public Schools, more than half of students qualify for free and reduced price meals but there's not full participation in the school breakfast and lunch program.
Bryan hopes by making school food more tasty and interesting, there will be more kids eating at school and less food wasted.
The Chefs in School program is a multi-pronged approach to get children and teenagers engaged with making healthy diet decisions by making enticing meals created from scratch in school kitchens. By the end of this school year, Pittsfield will have tested and adopted four new menu items through Chefs in School.
"School food has a tough reputation. We're breathing a little life into it by showing staff how to do a little bit more with the ingredients provided to them," said Chef Guy Koppe, who cooked and served at the Williams Elementary program Friday.
Local and state legislators, as well as school district administrators also visited Friday, to see for themselves how the program works.
By design, under federal nutrition guidelines, the recipes meet required nutritional values, and the ingredients are based on those typically made available to a school and district.
First, the visiting chefs and school staff identify a recipe from the Chefs in School's repertoire to test out. The chefs make the meal based on the school size, and serve sample portions during a regular school lunch period and have students vote on whether they liked it.
Earlier this fall, Bryan said, the schools sampled an orange ginger chicken recipe, which went over well with students, and will appear on school menus as a full meal in January.
"Sometimes, when we bring something forth to the kids, it's not as accepted," Bryan said. "When you have a chef introducing that item, it's more acceptable; they're more excited to try it."
First-grader Olivia Oleskiewicz backed up Bryan's theory. She said the program was "cool" because "I had never seen a real chef before; only in the movies."
Chef Icklan said he tries to keep an upbeat and open rapport with the students.
"If they don't like it, they're free to tell me. For me, they don't have to like it, but I like to see each kid try it," Icklan said.
Icklan works in all 12 city schools, as well as five schools in the Gill-Montague Regional School District as part of Project Bread. He said he takes cues from cafeteria staff too.
"The staff are already doing so much that it's really a positive partnership," Icklan said.
"There's always room to learn, and they're doing a wonderful job training us through this program," said Marie Sutton, the head cook at Williams Elementary, who coordinates meals with two other staff members. "If it helps kids make healthy choices, I'm all for it."
On the Web ...
Learn more about Project Bread and Chefs in School at projectbread.org.