Variety in School

A foundation that tests new ways to serve school lunches experiments with our Test Gardeners’ Tried-and-True Favorites.

February 10, 2014

The Vetri Foundation for Children (VFFC) was established in 2008 by chef Marc Vetri and his business partner, Jeff Benjamin, to help kids experience the connection between healthy eating and healthy living. Through food, education, and social interaction, the VFFC works to give children the nutritional foundation they need to grow and thrive. The foundation has developed a school lunch program, Eatiquette, in which all the food is prepared from scratch and is served family style. Eatiquette focuses on the importance of eliminating processed foods and teaching children life skills about food, dining, and community.

As part of the Eatiquette program, adults active in the school community—from the principal all the way down to volunteers—are active in the lunchroom, sitting down with the children and dining. This is part of the encouragement piece: adults leading by example, eating the same foods as the children. The second piece is the food. When you replace a chicken nugget with raw spinach or other foods children have possibly not seen before, never mind tried before, they’re going to miss the chicken nugget, and you’ve lost them before you had a chance. The three-part strategy of making the food flavorful; tying it in to a fun, educational environment; and then adding adults to the lunchroom has reaped positive results. Children are bringing home recipes they’ve tried in the lunchroom and asking their parents to make them. Parents are visiting the VFFC website and trying new foods that their kids now love.

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Try this favorite: Turkey Burgers with Roasted Eggplant Salsa

Eatiquette is built on the idea that this can and should be spread across the country. As the director of culinary operations at the VFFC, I help train and counsel our partner schools in the idea of sustainability. Quite simply, we teach people how to fish, rather than fishing while others watch.

What's in Season

The Eatiquette program uses seasonal ingredients as much as possible for multiple reasons. Cooking with seasonal ingredients, which are abundant in volume, often costs less. When educating children about food, the lunchroom becomes a classroom, and teaching them about seasonality has become a significant platform in our program. In-season produce can often be sourced locally, supporting the local economy, farmers, CSA growers, and markets. I still get excited when a season changes and a vegetable comes into season, bringing new opportunities for creativity. Out-of-season produce—say, asparagus in early November—tends to be less flavorful, and the children lose interest.

Mouth-watering Sage Roasted Turkey with Ground Cherry Marmalade

Trying New Varieties

When I approach a new vegetable or fruit variety, the first thing I do is taste it raw so I know my starting point. Much as with animal proteins, I will then try different cooking techniques: Can I fry/bake/roast/grill/braise it? What does each application do to the vegetable? I then like to research the region where the vegetable is indigenous and understand its history, to find its “roots” and how it was used classically. Then I go to work.

Heirloom Tomato and Zucchini Galette with Fontina Cheese (pictured right)

I am a fan of heirloom tomatoes. I typically can’t find them outside of summer months, and if I could it would be a crime. They’re not only terrifically beautiful, but so flavorful! All I need is some sea salt, fresh basil from the garden, and a beautiful olive oil. Anything beyond that just complicates things.

Recently I have come to admire the ‘Shishito’ pepper. ‘Shishito’ has a spicy flavor that is not overwhelming—it doesn’t cancel other flavors out, doesn’t numb your tongue, but also stands its ground and has a sustaining heat that marries well with other ingredients, no matter the application. Whether it’s grilled, roasted, or sautéed, it maintains wonderful flavor.

The Best Moments

The younger kids—the ones most people would think might be extremely picky—get so enthused about the program. When I have a 6-year-old asking me when we’re having basil risotto again, or telling me she taught her older brother how to set the dinner table, it just takes my breath away!

Kid favorite: Roasted Carrots with Mint and Honey!

Photography by Andrea Monzo
Originally published in Organic Gardening magazine, February/March 2014