Interview With A NYC Prep School Chef

While the school lunch debate usually pertains to the state of food in public schools, I would like to timidly raise my hand and make a quiet and unremarkable suggestion so that the angry mob of super-outspoken "I have the numbers right here" activists doesn't trample me. I think private schools should serve as a proven working model of how to feed eager minds healthy, delicious food on a budget. It's not like private schools are made of cash dedicated to feeding students; the difference in daily budget isn't as big as you'd think.

I had a quick chat with Jenny Gensterblum, chef at Léman Manhattan Preparatory School, to see how far that cash goes when priorities are rearranged around it.

How much does lunch cost to produce?

Between $2.50 and $3.50 per student.

What was for lunch today?

Basil pesto whole wheat pasta with roasted chickpeas, raw carrot and celery stricks, a full salad bar and sandwich bar and we do a few specials on a separate hot line. Today we had some leftover whole wheat pizza with veggies.

What dishes do the kids like best?

All of the standards are popular, pizza and pasta, but also some surprising ones. Any kind of fish in a teriyaki sauce with brown rice, paella and we have some very big fans of kale chips — they take handfuls to snack on.

What's your dessert policy?

They only get dessert every two weeks. We try to encourage the kids to have fresh fruit for dessert — your body doesn't really know if it needs sugar at the end of a meal, and if you have a piece of fruit you'll probably feel better than if you ate a cookie. We do yogurt and applesauce.

Now, without getting into a numbers discussion, why can't the $11 billion spent on each year to feed schoolchildren also taste good? I'm not unearthing some epic concept when I find paying someone to make obviously addictive kale chips from abundant and healthy kale from a farm to be smarter than paying someone to snip open and reheat a giant plastic bag of frozen broccoli. And I'm on board with the scrapping of dessert thing. That's one less cash drain. Let them eat yogurt — it's full of protein and helps you go!

I've always believed strongly in good lunch — the day I realized school food didn't make me feel so smart and eager to absorb information, I started bringing my own. Fifteen years later, I became a lunch columnist. It was destiny. And just because Michelle Obama and Jamie Oliver aren't in the news every day promoting the cause doesn't mean we're not still obligated to continue improving the situation. I hope someday school chef is a crucial role in the education realm, and that "eat your vegetables" loses its stigma, because we all learned about kale chips in kindergarten.

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