Progress in School Food Reform: Michelle Obama and Bill Telepan Making a Difference


Michelle Obama joins both chefs and children in the White House garden. [Photograph: Let's Move]

It was a pleasant surprise to everyone when Michelle Obama planted an organic garden soon after moving into the White House. Since then, she has consistently emphasized the importance of healthy eating in the home. Her longterm goal is to decrease childhood obesity rates by encouraging more physical activity and reforming the way children eat in schools.

Her official initiative, called Let's Move, "will give parents the support they need, provide healthier food in schools, help our kids to be more physically active, and make healthy, affordable food available in every part of our country."

The official kick-off of Let's Move was on June 4, and saw hundreds of chefs from across the country gather at the White House to hear her speak. Essentially, Mrs. Obama is calling chefs to action, asking them to work with schools to prepare better menus and educate children and families on proper nutrition. The potential of this movement is huge—just think what would happen if even a few hundred schools had professional chefs working with their minimally trained kitchen staff.

Changes implemented in individual programs could spark reform in other towns, leading to regional and hopefully even national policy improvement.

Some chefs already know the importance of school food reform, and one particularly influential voice of the movement is chef Bill Telepan chef-owner of New York's Telepan. He's been volunteering in the kitchen of P.S. 87, his daughter's elementary school on the Upper West Side, for some time now. His involvement started when he partnered with organization Wellness in the Schools (WITS) and began working in the school's cafeteria one day a week. Soon, he amped up his involvement and found himself spending more and more time improving recipes and helping get the junk food out of the cafeteria.

Now, chef Telepan is actively involved in expanding the WITS program to other schools, encouraging parents to have a voice about school food reform, and coupling Mrs. Obama's request that chefs get involved in our public school kitchens.

I spoke with vhef Telepan about implementing change in the P.S. 87 school cafeteria, and how other schools can do the same.


Chef Bill Telepan. [Photograph:]

How does working with the staff in a school kitchen compare to training the staff in your restaurant?

Well, I approached it the same—I did an observation period first so I could see what was going on, and then slowly made changes. I had to go slow with making changes to school food. You have to be highly aware of food safety, there's many more children, and it's a different culture than a restaurant. I got to know everyone before I started doing any work. And you're in a public domain, so there's lots of rules to follow.

Did you face any equipment barriers in the school kitchen?

Yes. Part of the problem with instituting national reform is that there are three kinds of kitchens: hotel kitchens, which are fully equipped; kitchens that have some equipment, maybe a couple ovens; and kitchens that have exactly two convection ovens, one burner, and a microwave. Most of the schools we're in are in the latter category, the really minimal kitchens. We've developed the recipes at P.S. 87 with the really minimal kitchens in mind—for instance, our chili can be made entirely in a convection oven.

Who made the decisions about what could and would go on the lunch menu at the school?

I had a lot of menu flexibility. As long as what you're making is within the dollar amount and the school can buy the ingredients from the procurement place. The school has a recipe book and I made modifications to certain things; I took out processed ingredients and made the recipes more natural. And they were fine with all of that. But I couldn't bring vegetables from the farmers' market because that's not allowed—the soil would have to be tested before I could bring in vegetables straight from the farm.

You've spoken in the past about how parents should try to become more involved in this debate. What barriers exist to parental involvement and how can parents overcome them?

I think it depends on the area—there aren't really resources to think about food quality in some places, where the main concern is getting something on the plate for the child. I think what a lot of parents don't realize is how important nutrition is.

In my school we get involved, and there's other schools where parents are reaching out. I think that people just don't know their options. We're the bosses because we're the taxpayers. Parents have a right to know everything that's going on, and they can make changes!

A large part of your efforts has been Congressional lobbying. What is the feeling in Congress about school lunch reform?

There's some congressional support—they know it's an important issue. With Mrs. Obama's Let's Move program I think they're more aware. The truth is, there's no money. It's hard to ask for all this money when there's no money to give. There are things that we can do within the system, within the current per-meal reimbursement rate—it just takes time.

[Ed. Note: Chef Telepan led a movement of chefs and school food advocates to Washington D.C. to lobby in mid-March of this year. He engaged in a similar activity on June 10. The group is trying to get representatives to pass significant budget increases in this cycle of the Child Nutrition Act, to be voted upon soon.]

The June 10th effort is the same effort that it was in March—we're trying to raise Congress' awareness that we need more money in the Act. Right now the slated budget increase is only pennies per child. We are asking for an increase of up to 70 cents per child. That would be HUGE.

So what do you hope to see from chefs in New York City in terms of their participation with schools?

New York City schools need a lot of help. Teaching the kids about food is great, developing a garden with a school in your area. Doing what we [WITS] do is kind of extreme—we're going to be in 20 schools next year. But we need as much help as we can get—if they want to get involved, they can sign up at the Chefs Move to Schools website.

We're chefs. We feed a lot of privileged people. But we have skills, and food is such an essential part of life that even if they could give just a minimal amount of time to a school, chefs could make a huge impact.

To learn more about the WITS program, visit their website. Also check out the Let's Move initiative, learn more about Chefs Move to Schools, and visit the lovely Telepan restaurant if you're in the neighborhood!