In a perfect world, schoolchildren would happily toss away their nuggets and greasy french fries in exchange for the chance to enjoy food fresh from a farm, made from scratch and prepared by a highly trained culinary chef.
Here in New Orleans, Volunteers of America is aiming to make this ideal vision a reality.
Last year, the organization started a venture called Fresh Food Factor, with the goal of transforming what has become the typical school lunch. Operating out of a sparkling new commercial kitchen off Tchoupitoulas Street, VOA is dedicated to providing kid-friendly meals using fresh food.
“You won’t see any cans here, except tomato paste,” said chef Lawrence Dodds, food service director for Fresh Food Factor.
Currently, the Fresh Food Factor kitchen is set up to serve up to 3,000 meals a day — all with real ingredients. Dodds bakes all the bread on-site, and many of the ingredients used come from Stoney Point Farm, located near Franklinton in Washington Parish.
“We got our first crop of kale in last Thursday,” Dodds said. “I did it up in a garlic and cheese sauce so it tasted more like collard greens.”
Dodds said it seems to be a hit.
Among other favorites are local traditions like red beans and rice and gumbo, along with whole-wheat calzones, turkey tacos, loaded baked potatoes and something they call pizza pasta.
The program has had success in its first year, serving healthy breakfasts and lunches to over 1,000 children at Lake Forest Elementary Charter School, Bricolage Academy of New Orleans, Milestone SABIS Academy of New Orleans, Christian Brothers School, Central City EOC and Priscilla Edward Head Start programs, and Young Audiences of Louisiana at the NORDC Lyons Center.
Throughout May, the kitchen has been busy hosting tours for school administrators who will bid out next year’s meal services.
“Today, we had a school visiting that brought along some parents to do some tasting,” said Donna Betzer, director of marketing for VOA. “That was the first time a school has done that, and I think it’s just great.”
Robin Gorman, director of child nutrition at Lake Forest Elementary Charter School, remembers taking the tour last year.
“I had read that the facility was going to provide fresh fruit, but I remember wondering if that could really be the case,” she said. “Then, during the tour, I looked down and saw a case of fresh pineapple. I was amazed. They really do it.”
“It’s certainly different, cooking for kids now, but I love it,” Dodds said. A graduate of culinary school in England, Dodds spent seven years cooking for fine dining establishments and ran his own restaurant for three years in Mandeville before accepting his current position with Fresh Food Factor.
“There’s a definite learning curve every day — a challenge to develop fresh, healthy food that kids will eat within the parameters set.”
The parameters he speaks of are the USDA guidelines for school lunches, something every school meal provider needs to meet with every meal served.
Within those requirements though, Dodds says there’s a lot of leeway.
“The USDA requirements can be filled in many ways, including with a lot of prepackaged and canned foods,” he said. “I mean, you can serve corn dogs and meet requirements, but is that healthy? I can’t in good conscience serve that kind of food while wearing this jacket,” he said, pointing to the Fresh Food Factor logo embroidered on his chef coat.
Early last year, Dodds worked with dietitian Theresa Brown to create the first menu.
“That menu we started with has since changed 10-fold,” Dodds said. “What we have now is basically a compilation of all the favorites.”
For many kids, the switch to fresh food can be a bit of an adjustment, one that has involved some education. Gorman says, however, that the Bricolage Academy students have come to embrace the change.
“About three months into the year, there was a day when the fresh bananas we were serving were too heavy to put on the plate so we had to hand them out at the end,” she said. “One of our second-graders came marching up, almost in tears, asking, ‘Where’s my fresh fruit?’ They’ve gotten so used to it that now they have to have it, and that’s great.”
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For more information, visit www.freshfoodfactor.org.