Globe Editorial

Fresh food: Public schools need chefs

July 22, 2011

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After 280 cases of expired frozen foods were discovered in Boston public school cafeterias in March, a drawn-out “ewwwww” was the appropriate response. Now school officials are giving students a new reason to pinch their noses: Instead of replacing the longtime director of food and nutrition services with a chef trained in food inventory and preparation, administrators are once again looking for a nutritionist or dietitian, according to an online job posting. It’s the mistake that led to Freezergate in the first place.

For decades, the consensus among school administrators has been that chefs aren’t needed to plan and prepare meals; instead, schools have relied on dietitians who’ve stressed consistency and ease of preparation in choosing foods. But those priorities help explain why cafeteria food is often frozen, heavily processed, or both. It’s not surprising that the Boston school system, which doesn’t count a trained chef among its administrators, ended up reheating long-frozen egg patties and serving them to children.

In a recent shift, several school districts around the country have appointed former restaurant chefs to head their food programs. The move is paying off in systems as vast as New York. In Framingham, meanwhile, Brendan Ryan, a chef trained at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, has transformed cafeterias where more than 70 percent of the food used to be processed or frozen; now, about 70 percent is made by school cooks. Framingham’s experience shows that schools can dish out simple, fresh foods in large quantities. But it takes a leader with the know-how to train workers and manage inventories of quickly perishable ingredients, while still meeting standards for nutrition and cost per plate.