Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Extended Q&A with Bay Arenac ISD Career Center's Andy Bacigalupo

Editor's note: A portion of the following Q&A was featured in the "School lunch makeover" article (page 22) that appeared in the Spotlight department of the Autumn 2010 issue of Chef Educator Today.

As food prices rise amid shrinking school budgets, administrators have struggled in recent years to keep their food bills down while still meeting federal nutrition requirements to maintain lunch subsidies. Enter the chef--no stranger to tight finances, lack of space and equipment, with high standards for quality. This summer, First Lady Michelle Obama invited chefs nationwide to take part in the launch of Chefs Move to Schools, an initiative calling on chefs to "adopt" schools in their community and help revamp their lunch programs and make nutrition education a priority.

Chef Andy Bacigalupo, ProStart culinary instructor at Bay Arenac ISD Career Center for the past nine years and father of three, was among the guests at the White House launch on June 4. He has recruited a task force of approximately 40 high school culinary students to help him start a nutrition education initiative stretching across 21 elementary schools in and around Bay City, Mich., for the coming year. Bacigalupo recently spoke to CET about his ambitious plans for school lunch.

Chef-instructor Andy Bacigalupo (back row, third from right) and Bay Arenac ISD Career Center culinary students gather with their Chefs Move to Schools elementary schoolers, parents, vendors, farmers and administrators.

CET: How did you and your students get involved with Chefs Move to Schools?
Bacigalupo: Last year, our class of 110 students and myself were featured on the "Dr. Oz Show," where I accepted a no-salt challenge to reduce or eliminate salt in my diet ... and teach my students how to substitute other ingredients for salt in cooking. So we made our educational restaurant [Blooming Chefs Restaurant] salt-free. For an entire year, we eliminated salt from our diets and replaced it with fresh herbs, citruses and different spices that didn't have salt, which turned out to be extremely successful for the restaurant and for my own personal health. ...

The [American Cuilnary Federation] then asked me to get involved with Chefs Move to Schools, which has everything to do with educating young people from kindergarten stage up to high school level about the importance of nutrition, where food comes from, from seed to plate, how to use local vendors and local farmers in creating our meals [and making] healthy choices. We picked about three culinary students from each of our sending schools to represent a task force [of 40 students], which is going to spread out into all of their home schools. We are trying to start a pyramid of health where we have students mentoring students. Our students are going to go into elementary and middle schools to talk about nutrition and healthy foods the kids would like to see in their school store and cafeteria. We're holding seventh and eighth grade Iron Chef competitions in a local theater where my brother is director. ... We will hold town meetings where we are going to have parents, foodservice workers, adminstration and students all attend to start the ball rolling on this project.

CET: Do you think schools' resistance to the program is because they already have a system in place, or do they think it's too expensive?
Bacigalupo: I think it's both. Because if you look at it, 98 cents to $1 [per student lunch] is not a whole lot. Chefs could look at that dollar and say, "Hey, I can do a lot with that dollar," and that's why I think Michelle Obama went to chefs because we can be creative.

She told us, "It’s not going to be met with open arms. This is going to be met with some resistance from foodservice workers." They've done the same thing for year after year, so they're going to be resistant to change. What we're hoping is to work slowly and get one or two of these schools that are really on board and really passionate about the change. A lot of these workers have been in the school system for 20 or 30 years and they have a set way of doing things, so it really is going to have to be subtle. ... But it's going to be a lot like when we had to quit smoking in restaurants, or when laws about seatbelts or drunk driving came into place. All these things happened after years and years of problems. Now the problem is childhood obesity. And now we have to do something about it.

Bay Arenac ISD Career Center culinary students perform a puppet show to help educate elementary school kids on nutrition.

CET: So your job is essentially to come in and retrain the school's foodservice staff to create these healthier meals, right?
Bacigalupo: This is where I come in. I will massage the administration and foodservice workers. My students are going to mentor the young kids--students mentoring students. The political part is going to be the administration. We have 98 cents to feed the students, so administrators are going to look at it as, "I don't want to screw my budget up." So what I am going to have to do is come in and demo affordable items like a potato pizza, for example, where we take roasted potatoes, tomato sauce and low-fat cheese. You could do lettuce wraps, stir-fries, fresh salad bars--all these things they resisted in the past. It seems like salad bars are always two or three arm lengths away [from] students. They're never promoted and always perceived as a pain by foodservice workers. When we did our survey, [the students] said they wouldn't touch their salad bar. It never looked fresh. So that's an area where I need to come in, because I don't think the administration would take the students seriously. But their voices will be heard because they're going to help with the requests from the kids.

That's partly why we’re going to hold town meetings. We are going to hold two of them and invite parents because the parents want nutritious food for their kids as well. We are going to demo how easy it can be for foodservice workers, but we are going to move slowly because we don't want to upset all the work that’s been done. So if we get one or two things in to start--maybe a meatless Monday or other creative things that go along with whatever they have in-house so they don’t have to buy a bunch of new things, that would be great. But maybe it will show them some ideas that might be just as easy and very nutritious.

CET: How are you introducing kids to some of these healthier items they may not be as familiar with if they grew up eating fast food? Did you offer taste tests?
Bacigalupo: That's exactly what we did [with the no-salt challenge] last year. Kids love French fries. So we took one ingredient, one mineral--salt--and we omitted it. And it was such an amazing result. The kids' palates became more in-tune to the flavor of food.

When we caramelized butternut squash, a lot of kids said, "This is what butternut squash tastes like?" Compared to the gobs of butter, salt and brown sugar they were throwing on it before, they could taste the food. It's introducing them to new ways of doing things, new products and it still tastes good, but it's better for you! And the kids truly want nutritious things. When we did our survey, it was truly amazing how many wanted fresh fruit available, how many wanted a fresh salad or fresh sandwich. The top choice was fresh fruit smoothies. We polled over 600 kids, and 450 wanted fresh fruit smoothies.

Chef Bacigalupo (center) at a local farm with Bay Arenac ISD Career Center students and elementary school students.

CET: What would you say are your one-year and five-year goals with Chefs Move to Schools in your community?
Bacigalupo: As I said, our goal is to start a pyramid of good health and nutrition education awareness. Within this year, we want to have 21 schools talking about nutrition. We want our task force to hit all their home schools and get out to at least 21 different elementary schools starting in all their communities. It is a lot of community involvement as well. A lot of our kids are coming from farms up here in Michigan. A lot of the local vendors we use buy from these local farmers. So it's all a big chain. We're buying local, they're buying from local farmers. ... And that's all a part of what [Michelle Obama] is talking about. She wants after-school programs, she wants kids during the summertime to be able to find a meal. She doesn't want people to go hungry, she wants people to eat healthy. She wants awareness in the community, with parents, administrators and foodservice workers awareness. She wants it to start with us, the chefs.

This year, we want this task force in full place and we ultimately want to set the benchmark for the nation. We want to challenge other schools to be as passionate as we are about what we're doing. And there are a lot of people out there who are passionate about this project. I witnessed it firsthand at the White House. I couldn't believe I was rubbing elbows with these people. I was in awe, but I am totally on board, and I have a great group of kids who are passionate about it as well. ... We're hoping to set the benchmark for the rest of the nation, and our community awareness is going to rise. ... I've got twin boys at home [who] are 5 and a baby girl [who] is 3. And this has everything to do with these kids. This is totally a part of history, and it's about changing the way our children our being fed in these schools.