The fourth grade girls spoke of last year’s mysterious taco salad. “Nobody [the teachers] saw it but all the students were throwing their taco salads away,” said fourth grader Luly, “because they heard that somebody threw up in class right after eating it.” Something in it might have been expired, the girls said.
If you ask the kids at St. Patrick Parish School, the school lunches this year are a big improvement. St. Patrick, a parochial school in Miami Beach, revamped its school lunch program this year. Veggie-heavy and mostly organic meals have replaced taco salads regarded with suspicion by the fourth graders.
Greenrocks Foods LLC is the new food provider at the school. The school administration has given the company freedom to experiment with the menu and ingredients, according to Greenrocks chef and co-owner, Adri Garcia. They are currently trying out a thirty day menu to figure out which dishes and flavors are most popular.
I visited the school last week and sampled the day’s meal of teriyaki chicken and vegetables with jasmine rice and carrot ginger soup. Half an apple and an oatmeal raisin cookie accompanied lunch.
The Greenrocks chefs (Adri Garcia and Mercy Capote) keep children’s palates in mind when they prepare the soup. The students visit the cafeteria in shifts, from youngest to oldest. The carrot ginger soup starts out mild for the Kindergarten through second graders, with an amplified ginger kick for the older students. The soup could be mistaken for any you would eat a gourmet store or lunch counter. The teriyaki chicken bowl was delicious and flavorful enough for any adult; it was not to be confused with any bland cafeteria meal, but was also inviting enough for the hesitant child.
Kids as food critics…
The students seemed to agree. Several students mentioned the teriyaki chicken bowl when I asked them what their favorite meal was so far this school year. A small group of fourth graders gave the teriyaki chicken bowl four or five (out of five) stars. First grader Gabriela said that she “could eat this every day.”
A few students thought the carrot ginger soup was too spicy, but fourth grader Tiffany, the gastronome of her table, stated: “Very spicy–I like it.” Other favorite meals listed were the sloppy joes and the meatloaf with potatoes and green peas.
Students notice the difference in their lunches this year. The fourth graders I spoke with agree that the meals are healthier. Students rate the new school lunch program from “a little better” to “a lot better” to “definitely better.” Valentina, a fourth grader, brings lunch every day, but after seeing her companions’ lunches, she is considering getting the school lunch plan. Art teacher Kerry Ware also enjoys the new meals: “Last year, the food was all fried. It was all the same color and the same texture.”
No school cafeteria is without its food legends and lore. This one is no exception. The fourth grade girls spoke of last year’s mysterious taco salad. “Nobody [the teachers] saw it but all the students were throwing their taco salads away,” said fourth grader Luly, “because they heard that somebody threw up in class right after eating it.” Something in it might have been expired, the girls said. Chef Garcia didn’t go into details about the previous company, but she did confirm there were some kitchen and provisioning practices going on that she did not agree with as a professional chef.
Children also have the option of the salad bar, which is included in their regular lunch price. I noticed salads occupying several lunch trays. The salad bar is small, at the kid level and is filled with a small selection of fresh, bright vegetables. One first grader said that she ate the salad every day. “The salad bar was full of dirt last year,” said fourth grader Riley. “This year, it’s much better organized,” said another student. The salad bar features different dressings each day to get the kids to try new flavors. However, they seem particularly attached to the ranch dressing, and some would like to have it served daily. “Bring back the ranch,” some of the fourth graders said.
As one would expect, the cookies are well-received. “Every day, they bring us a new type of cookie,” says first-grader Gabriela. “No one throws away cookies,” says Luly the fourth grader, who is as yet unimpressed with the lunchtime changes. “The chocolate chip cookies are phenomenal!” raves fourth grader Stephanie.
“We’ve had moms coming by and asking us if we have any extra food left over…”
Greenrocks is a partnership between Chef Garcia and Mercy Capote, a St. Patrick alumni and active parent. When the school got rid of the old catering company, Capote called her friend and suggested that she help cater the school’s lunches. They decided on collaboration. Albert’s Organics in Sarasota is the source of most of Greenrocks’ produce.
So far, the new program is a success. St. Patrick offers lunch subscriptions that parents can purchase along with tuition. This year, 110 students (approximately half the school population) signed up, compared to 50-70 students last year. “We’ve had moms coming by and asking us if we have any extra food left over that they can buy and take home,” says Garcia. In a few weeks, Greenrocks will roll out a weekly dinner program; once a week, families will be able to buy a catered dinner to serve at home.
Chef Garcia feels like serving healthy, delicious lunches and running a for-profit business can be both possible and cost-effective. Garcia tries to keep costs down by purchasing produce that’s in season and thus less expensive. If she can’t afford to buy all of her produce organic, she focuses on purchasing “The Dirty Dozen” organic–those fruits and vegetables identified by the Environmental Working Group as being the most heavily sprayed with pesticides. She sometimes uses frozen vegetables for her stir-fries so that she can use an exact amount and save the rest for later.
Of course, children young and old still sometimes crave those comforting but unfortunately nutritionally destitute flavors. “I had a kid ask me for corn dogs today,” says Capote. “I told him ‘You can go to the carnival for that.’”