At Global Leadership Academy, a K -8 charter school on Girard Avenue in West Philly, a group of third through sixth grade students walk quietly and in single file into their brightly-lit, pristine cafeteria. They are in their school uniforms—v-neck GLA sweaters with gray pants for the “gentleman scholars;” v-necks with plaid skirts for the “female scholars”—and now they each don a chef’s white jacket, embroidered with both their school logo and the Vetri Family insignia. These are the table captains for today’s school lunch, students whose turn it is to be in charge of the Vetri family-style dining experience, an innovative school lunch program that is the brainchild of chef Marc Vetri and his business partner, Jeff Benjamin, under the aegis of their Vetri Foundation.
With“Eatiquette,” Vetri and Benjamin hope to show kids the connection between eating well and feeling good through the use of fresh, healthy food and family style dining. It’s part of a group of healthy cooking and eating programs the Foundation runs for more than 5,000 kids throughout the region. Eatiquette is currently in ten schools and two summer camps. Thanks to Superintendent William Hite the program is now in two neighborhood schools, District-run Ziegler Elementary in North Philly and Kensington’s Julia DeBurgos Elementary.
In Vetri’s reimagined cafeteria, family-style dining and captain service has replaced the all-too-familiar subject of old Adam Sandler Saturday Night Live parodies: the hair-netted lunch lady, joylessly doling out spoonfuls of slop to a disengaged assembly line of students. After all, lunch is all of 30 minutes, and it takes roughly 30 seconds to move through a lunch line. “That’s not too bad, unless you’re the hundredth kid in line,” says the nattily-attired Benjamin, who stands nearby with Vetri Foundation chef Tia McDonald, ever watchful.
At GLA, the captains aren’t here to fool around. They have work to do in the few minutes before the arrival of their classmates. They set their tables—28 in all—with a red tablecloth, pitchers of water and the day’s tossed salad, which features carrots and a vinaigrette dressing. When their classmates arrive, each heads directly to one of his or her pre-assigned tables.
Today’s menu consists of a roast chicken wrap with hummus and roasted red peppers in a whole grain tortilla, with marinated green beans and a tossed salad of romaine and carrots. For dessert, there’s marinated strawberries with a mint yogurt. At each table, the designated captain serves the wraps, and the students talk about their food.
“They didn’t give us a regular meal before,” says one. “They gave us sandwiches. And pizza.”
“That’s why they do this,” says another, while the captain walks around the table, doling out more marinated string beans. “When we eat, they want it to be more like home.”
“They” would be Vetri and Benjamin, who watches today’s lunchroom scene play out before him with great pride. Vetri and Benjamin are arguably two of the most socially-responsible restaurateurs in the country. Their Great Chefs Event—with star chefs from around the country—benefiting both the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation and The Vetri Foundation for Children, recently celebrated its 10th year. They were initially drawn to the issue of how we’re feeding our kids in school by the national epidemic of childhood obesity. As they researched the issue, both nationally and in Philly, they realized how high the stakes are.
What they found was disturbing: They found that one in five American children lacks steady access to food, and 75 percent of teachers report having students who regularly show up to school hungry.
They found meals that are put together in large processing centers, packaged, and then shipped to Philly to be reheated in “retherm ovens.” (Yes, it’s inexpensive—but it’s costly if you care about minor things like taste, freshness and nutrition.)
They found regulations that counted French fries as vegetables, thanks to lobbying by something called the Frozen Potato Products Institute, believe it or not, which represents most of the manufacturers of processed potato products.
They found a requirement that milk be served at lunch—thanks to the ever-powerful dairy lobby. As a result, most cafeterias offer chocolate milk, figuring that adding flavor, not to mention 20 grams of sugar, would make milk more palatable.
They found a generation of kids so hopped up on high fructose corn syrup they were unable to learn.
They found a half-hour period of the day—lunch—that is totally devoid of any educational content.
At Germantown’s John B. Kelly elementary school, they found makeshift lunch tables in a hallway squeezed between rows of lockers. As at other schools, they found tables with giant trash buckets at one end, so students could easily sweep their refuse into the receptacles.
“Imagine eating a meal at home with a trash can next to the kitchen table?” an incredulous Vetri, for whom the concept of family dinner has always been sacred, observed to his partner.
They agreed that they needed to do something. In 2010, they decided they’d approach the School District and offer to not only help feed kids nutritious, great-tasting meals, but also teach them about food. Maybe the half-hour devoted to lunch could become part of the educational experience, instead of some surreal adrenaline-fueled free-for-all. What could be so hard?
The partners thought they were offering help that couldn’t be denied. They had no idea they were stepping onto a political mine field. Benjamin looks back on those days now and can’t help but shake his head in wonder. “God, we were so naïve,” he says, sighing.
Over the last few years, school lunch has been having a moment, driven largely by grassroots demand. From a Chicago school teacher’s popular blog, to a New York City fourth-grader’s documentary, to a New Orleans activist group demanding changes, students and teachers have risen up to say: Enough with the “rethermed” meals that are loaded with food additives (dye, MSG, aspartame) and that are, in some cases, shipped clear across the country.
Here in Philadelphia a couple of years ago, 16-year-old Nadia Watson let her voice fly at a School Reform Commission meeting. Watson, then a member of Youth United for Change, a city-wide student-led group dedicated to improving schools and holding school officials accountable, was a sophomore at Kensington Business High School when she told SRC members that the food she and her classmates are given is unrecognizable. “We had to ask what it was,” she said. “It was some darkish looking turkey with yams and stuffing.”
And last year, after her kids wouldn’t even eat the pizza the District was serving, parent Rebecca Kenton circulated a change.org petition to lobby for a new food services contractor that provided healthier fare. About 600 other parents signed on, but then the effort kind of faded away. “A lot of people felt the way I did, but they were like, ‘You can’t do anything about it,’” Kenton recalls. “I called the District a few times and left messages, but no one ever called me back. I was like, ‘Okay, I guess they’re concentrating on getting text books.’”
Vetri and Benjamin took their first steps into the school lunch morass five years ago, when friend and frequent customer Michael Rouse asked for their help. Rouse runs ESF Camps, which includes a nonprofit mentorship program, Dream Camp, for low-income children. The campers’ income level entitled them to free lunches, funded by the federal and state governments. But those lunches, Rouse noticed, were often fried, canned and more full of chemicals than nutrients. And he noticed that, each summer, his campers were more and more obese. Vetri and Benjamin offered to do the cooking for the camp. “Campers were like, ‘This isn’t what a peach looks like,’” recalls Benjamin. “We had to explain that, No, the peach that comes out of a can isn’t what a peach looks like.”
The meals being produced by the Vetri Foundation team—though far fresher and more local than what had come before—cost only 30 cents more per student. How can that be?
They even devised a point system to reward campers for trying new foods—but they needn’t have bothered. By day two of the first summer session, fresh and local foods were a big hit. It got Vetri and Benjamin thinking: Why not do this throughout the District during the school year?
In their first meeting with District food service personnel, they got an inkling that change wouldn’t be quite as easy as they’d thought. “We were like, ‘Hey guys, guess what? We’re going to help you serve healthier lunches!’ And they were like, ‘Uh, no you’re not,’” Benjamin recalls, laughing.
Perhaps it was understandable: Can’t you just imagine what the District officials at 440 North Broad Street must have been thinking? Here comes a celebrity chef and his designer-suit wearing business partner, telling us what we’re doing wrong. No, thank you. So they reacted defensively, refuting the notion that they weren’t serving nutritious meals by noting that all meals meet USDA and U.S. Department of Education guidelines.
“That’s when it clicked for me,” recalls Benjamin. “That’s the benchmark. Some guy in D.C. told them they have to put this percentage of grains on the plate, so once they’ve done that, it’s checked off the list. And why do they need to check that off their list? Because if they don’t, they don’t get their reimbursement per meal from the federal government.”
In those initial meetings, things got tense, as Vetri and Benjamin—data-driven entrepreneurs in their business life—confronted the “can’t-do” mentality so common in large, governmental institutions. In their second meeting with the District, an official observed that, “Kids don’t like fish.” Vetri, though polite and usually mild-mannered, doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He lurched forward in his chair.
“You’re full of shit,” he said. “Kids don’t eat fish? Really? How about this: Kids don’t eat the fish you’re serving them. How about that?”
To this day, it’s a point of pride, and the source of an inside joke between them, that among the most popular dishes at the Vetri schools is fish tacos—chopped tilapia, sautéed with black bean sauce and tomato. From the beginning, Vetri and Benjamin saw the potential in adding healthy flourishes to popular dishes, instead of doing away with them. Chicken nuggets? How about using fresh chicken, baked in panko crust? Kids like them because, compared to the tiny chunks of processed chicken they’re used to, these nuggets are big and juicy. Not to mention real.
Realizing that bringing the Eatiquette revolution to District-run schools might be a tad more challenging than they’d thought, Vetri and Benjamin turned to charter schools, where principals have more flexibility to experiment and innovate. First, in 2011, came Rev. Herb Lusk’s 500-student People for People charter in North Philly, followed by eight others in rapid succession. (Eatiquette’s focus on teaching a healthy lifestyle made it a natural fit when Benjamin asked the Independence Blue Cross Foundation to help fund it.) All have had the same experience as at Global Leadership, where, during one parents’ night, instead of herding visitors into an auditorium, nearly 500 parents showed up to be fed Vetri food, family-style.
Perhaps, given Chef Vetri’s pedigree, it’s not surprising that the palates of kids and parents alike endorse the food. But what is surprising is Eatiquette’s widespread efficiency. The meals being produced by the Vetri Foundation team– though far fresher and more local than what had come before—cost only 30 cents more per student. How can that be?
When Vetri and Benjamin got into the school lunch game, they found regulations that counted French fries as vegetables, thanks to lobbying by something called the Frozen Potato Institute, believe it or not.
It will surprise no one to learn that the food services procurement process has long been rife with fiscal inefficiency: Buying in bulk and waste are rampant. We get blinded by Vetri’s talent, and forget that, on the business side of his operation, there’s market-tested expertise: Benjamin is able to afford all those fancy suits because he’s long been able to figure out how to buy food and sell it at a profit. “Now you’re getting into my core competency,” Benjamin says. “I know how to manage a refrigerator full of inventory.”
Ultimately, Benjamin envisions that expertise leading to a District-wide pro bono consultant role for his team. He’d embed Chef Tia in schools for weeks at a time, training officials on how to strategically purchase and plan. She’s uniquely qualified to do it, given that her resume, which is full of fine-dining experience, also includes a stint as senior executive chef at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where she produced over 14,000 meals a day.
So, if it’s possible to counter the obesity epidemic and feed kids healthy meals while making lunch more of a communal experience—all for a mere 30 cents more per kid—why not expand Eatiquette District-wide? Because change comes slow to tanker-like institutions. Wayne Grasela, the District’s Vice President for Food Services from 2006 until he was promoted to Acting Deputy Chief Operating Officer this year, wasn’t exactly jumping up and down to bring Eatiquette into his schools. “We’re very excited about the Vetri partnership,” he said. “But this is a pilot program, so we’re in wait and see mode. We’d like it to be cost neutral and we’re not quite sure yet whether they can do that.”
But in the last few years, there has emerged a reason to think that a District-wide expansion of Eatiquette could be a distinct possibility. See, Bill Hite was hired as superintendent. And, early on in his tenure, Bill Hite had dinner at Osteria.
Like other outsider change-agents in other disciplines, Jeff Benjamin doesn’t know what he doesn’t know—and that helps him get done what he dreams about getting done. Every thought flows from a very simple, even naïve, proposition: “There has to be a better way.”
One morning in his office at the homey Vetri digs in a Navy Yard bungalow, Benjamin lets a visitor in on the secret that all disruptors share: Willful naiveté is actually the key to success. “Marc and I said to each other early on, ‘Let’s pretend there is no such thing as school lunch,” Benjamin says. “How would you do it? What would you serve?’”
The walls behind him are filled with baseball memorabilia; Benjamin, a catcher, is an annual presence at Phillies Dream Week in Clearwater. But now it’s harder and harder to get him to talk about baseball; it’s as if he has a new pastime, one he has come to see as nothing less than saving our kids.
“When you spend the amount of time I have in our schools, you realize that we still teach kids based on the 1940 model,” he says. “The classroom hasn’t really changed. It’s still a box, you sit in your own little seat, you get lectured at by some person at the front of the room. The basic model hasn’t changed, but the way we learn has changed monumentally. So Marc and I come along and, in our little sphere, we’re saying, ‘Hey, how about doing it this way?’ And you’re kinda met with blank stares.”
Until, that is, Bill Hite. In conversations with the new superintendent, Benjamin finally felt like he’d found a kindred, disruptive spirit at the District. In Hite’s short tenure, he’s often been embattled and focused on just trying to keep the District afloat during turbulent times. But he has also green-lighted a number of innovative pilot programs, something his predecessor, Arlene Ackerman, was loathe to do: For good ideas to be implemented during her tenure, they had to be immediately scalable to all District schools.
Hite has repeatedly emphasized that he wants “this to be a District that people chose to send their kids to.” And he has told Benjamin his goal is to make Eatiquette scalable—beyond just charters.
Still, Benjamin knew that, for the Vetri program take hold in the District, he had to prove it could work by partnering with a principal who, in his words, “gives a shit.” That’s when he found Paul Spina, the principal at Ziegler, whose school had an under-utilized kitchen. Spina started using it, and began eating breakfast and lunch with his students every day.
Even with Hite’s blessing, getting Ziegler up and running took time. Bureaucracies don’t change overnight. There were still questions raised that, Benjamin was convinced, stemmed more from that institutional “can’t do” mentality than the entrepreneurial culture Hite was trying to instill, like the issue one official raised over the Vetri plan to use real silverware in the lunchroom.
“We’re concerned about giving the kids knives,” he said.
“It’s a butter knife,” Benjamin replied. “There’s a better chance that someone will stab someone with a pencil!”
Still, it got done. Eatiquette now runs in two District-run schools. And there are other signs that the District’s food service bureaucracy is willing to at least experiment, if not embrace, radical change. Over the last few years, the use of deep fat fryers have been discontinued, and a limited farm to school program was adopted. New USDA regulations for more fruits and vegetables were incorporated, and some 30 kitchens received enough upgrades to qualify as full service, so students at those schools don’t have to wonder “what is that?” when they see the pre-plated offerings that make up most school menus. Last year, Hite instituted free breakfast and lunch for all public school students, to ensure they had at least two meals per day. Perhaps not coincidentally, the childhood obesity rate has for the first time in decades started to come down in Philadelphia and around the country.
“We still teach kids based on the 1940 model,” Benjamin says. “The classroom is a box, you sit in your seat, you get lectured at. But the way we learn has changed monumentally.”
Still, of nearly 300 schools, less than a third have their own kitchens. You would think that would impede Benjamin’s dream of someday going District-wide. But you’d be wrong. “My pie in the sky dream is to find schools in every pocket of the city that have full service kitchens, and, rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll buy a bunch of vans that can move meals from that kitchen to the eight or 10 schools in its neighborhood that don’t have kitchens,” he says. “That’s a huge improvement over getting shit from some warehouse somewhere and retherming it. The way I think of it is this: People have off-site catering at their home for $150 a head. That food isn’t made at their home—it’s brought to them. So instead of me buying a new kitchen for 200 schools, I’d rather invest our money in these neighborhood food hubs.”
Benjamin and Vetri see now that they’ve moved beyond just feeding kids. Benjamin has discovered a whole new way of looking at education. They’ve developed a Vetri Family curriculum so kids can work with Vetri Foundation chefs and take what they’ve learned to their homes. There’s Culinary Classroom, an in-class cooking experience where students work with Vetri staff on recipes, learning fractions, measurements, seasonality, and knife safety, among other lessons. There are 13-week Culinary Arts Training classes for middle and high school students who want to explore a career in the culinary arts. There are the ESF Dream Camps, and the just completed SummerThyme Cooks, weekly cooking classes for kids at the Free Library’s Culinary Literacy Center. And they’ve partnered with Maureen Fitzgerald, the Inquirer’s food editor, on her My Daughter’s Kitchen program, which teaches kids to cook healthy, affordable meals from scratch. It’s now in 18 schools in Philadelphia and two in Camden, reaching more than 100 students.
“We’ve developed a kind of culinary apprenticeship that lasts much longer than the school year and perhaps even into a career,” Benjamin says. “In my world, a Vetri culinary internship is worth far more than a community college culinary degree.”
Marc Vetri and Jeff Benjamin may be dreamers, but their dreams come from real world experience and data. They know that, in Japan, school lunch is prepared from fresh and local ingredients every day. “What is most difficult for me to explain is why we can do this and other countries cannot,” a Japanese governmental official once said. In France, lunch period lasts for over an hour and includes five courses. In Finland and Sweden, lunch is free and consists of a buffet of nourishing foods. Vetri and Benjamin look at other countries and say what those inside our system are too embedded to ask: Why not here?
Header photo via Great Philly Schools.