It is time to rethink school lunch in Medford, where the public schools will soon have a professional chef.
Gone are the days when many of Medford's schools did not have kitchens and when hot lunch meant a foil-wrapped mystery that had been heated at the high school and trucked across the city. To new kitchens and cafeterias, thanks to an ambitious decade of school construction projects, and a food services director with an interest in health and wellness, the district has now added a chef to revamp its menus.
Bridget Collins, a Cambridge School of Culinary Arts graduate who has worked at Davio's in Boston and in the executive kitchen at Fidelity Investments, will start work in Medford Jan. 7. Her goal is to incorporate more fresh produce, whole grains, and colorful entrees into school cafeterias - and to do it without driving up the price of lunch or driving away the young customers.
"It's really scary at this point, but I'm really excited about it," Collins said by phone while removing hot pumpkin bread and inserting a tray of cookie bars into her home oven. "This has been my passion for so long."
Although Collins has cooked mostly for adults as a professional, she is a mother of two - her daughters are in sixth and 10th grades in Medford - and has a long interest in helping children discover a taste for fresh, healthy food.
Her new position developed partly out of her role collaborating with the schools last year on wellness dinners designed to introduce other parents and youngsters to healthy options that can be made at home, like vegetarian chili or turkey enchiladas with wheat tortillas and low-fat cheese.
Through the dinners, Collins met Jeanne Irwin, who came to Medford as director of food services in 2003 and who has similar interests. Collins had already made a series of nutritional changes, like swapping baked chips for fried and eliminating whole milk and soda. With new kitchens, she also wanted the district to try more cooking and less reheating.
She lobbied for a chef, at $45,000 a year, after calculating that the position could pay for itself through economies of scale in a nearly 5,000-student district. With Collins's guidance, the district could save $75,000 alone by baking pizza dough, muffins, and other items in house, instead of buying them frozen, Irwin estimated.
"We're going to be spending the same amount of money, but the kids are going to get a better product," said Irwin, who received four applications for the chef's job but considered Collins the clear choice. "It was almost like Bridget was thinking about this position before it existed - 'I can do this; I can do that' - and she brought [unmatched] enthusiasm and ideas to the table."
Collins will start by learning the intricacies of the school cafeteria world and developing new breakfast choices, like yogurt parfait or fresh-baked muffins with fruit and whole grains, before testing new entrees for lunch.
Eric Moskowitz can be reached at email@example.com.