School Meals As Delicious as Thanksgiving

Wishing you the best for the Thanksgiving holiday, and in anticipation of the delicious food we will all enjoy, sharing this hopeful experience regarding delicious school meals.

Earlier this month, Rosemary and I drove 15 minutes from our home in Boston’s Back Bay to the P J Kennedy Elementary School in East Boston near Logan Airport. Traditionally a community of immigrants – once home to John Kennedy’s paternal grandfather Patrick –  East Boston is now 50 percent Latin American, and the school 85%.

Jill Shah, a friend and neighbor of ours whose family foundation renovated kitchens in three East Boston Schools to pilot improved school meals for some of Boston’s poorest children, met us to give us a tour. Until recently, Boston school meals were made on Long Island and sent here from New York to be thawed and eaten. Jill’s vision was more old-fashioned – source healthy food locally and actually cook it for the kids.

The school was built in 1933 and last renovated more than 50 years ago. All 302 K thru 5th grade students qualify for free or reduced price meals. Lunch is served in the basement where the new kitchen was designed by chefs Andy Husbands and Ken Oringer.  School chef Santiago, in chef whites and a Red Sox baseball cap, could not be prouder of the kitchen’s new combination oven/steamer, and especially the counter of freshly cooked food. From the minute we walked in, the wonderful smell made us hungry.

Around noon, kids line up and point to what they’d like. A lunch lady arranges their choices on a tray.  Today it is broccoli, carrots, chicken, mac and cheese, apples and bananas. The kids sit at picnic style tables and eat quietly. “Notice the zen-like hum” says Jill. “Last year it was total chaos in here.”  Jill plans to expand the program to 30 Boston schools next year.  They will be renovated and retrofit over the summer.

A first grade girl asks my name. Hers is Melissa and she is with her friend Kristin.  I ask what they like best. To my surprise it’s the broccoli and red peppers.  I walk over to the trash barrel on wheels and find almost no food tossed or wasted. Only empty cardboard trays.

The city estimated the renovation would cost $1 million.  The Shah Foundation did it for $65,000.  They threw in a new coat of paint. “This really didn’t cost much money” she says. “It was more about not taking no for an answer. There were tons of obstacles. A sink that didn’t meet regulations. The lack of a grease trap. I could go on and on. Some people stop at ‘no’. We didn’t. The idea was not just serve better meals but create a food culture here.”

Boston has the money for fresh and healthy school meals. What its students didn’t have was a voice. The Shah Family Foundation provided one. Good food matters. Share Our Strength chefs are as passionate about quality as access. Kids don’t just deserve food, they deserve healthy and delicious food. If the Shaw’s experiment in Boston catches on, our trip to the future maybe closer than we think.

Have a great Thanksgiving holiday. Come back determined not to take no for an answer.


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