Hot Lunch Goes Healthy

Chef Seth Bixby Daugherty leaves Cosmos to help change school cafeterias

SETH BIXBY DAUGHERTY meets his daughter Emma, 10, for lunch at her school cafeteria in Oak Point Intermediate School in Eden Prairie. Daugherty, the former executive chef of Cosmos, has recently traded the downtown Minneapolis restaurant known for its sleek décor and luxurious food for an eatery equipped with warming ovens, fluorescent lights, and long, low tables with attached plastic swivel chairs. The award-winning chef (he graced the cover of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs issue in 2005) is forming a nonprofit called Real Food Initiatives, with the long-term goal of working with schools to overhaul lunch menus nationwide, and creating a K-12 curriculum that gives kids culinary knowledge and skills.

But today, his main goal is to demonstrate what led him to this crusade. “This isn’t the worst or best lunch they serve,” Daugherty says, as he squeezes his tall frame into a swivel chair and nibbles his over-nuked hot dog and sickly sweet chili. Still, it’s easy to see that the items most kids choose—hot dogs, frozen quesadillas, and chocolate milk—contain lots of sugar, salt, and fat but precious few nutrients. Vegetables? One girl eats mushy canned green beans; another picks at a small salad with her fingers.

“Whenever they came up with the idea of feeding kids in schools, I don’t think they thought, ‘Let’s give kids the least nutritious foods possible,’” he says. “It would be just as easy to serve some roasted chicken and potatoes and sautéed zucchini.”

Okay, not easy—but certainly possible. In 2003, the Hopkins School District hired Bertrand Weber, the general manager of the former Whitney Hotel, to overhaul its food-service program. USDA standards have only recently started to address the skyrocketing rates of childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes, so Hopkins had to set its own: banning trans fats and high fructose corn syrup and eliminating most processed foods.

Change wasn’t exactly easy. “Some of the kids didn’t know what the chicken was at first,” Weber says, “because it wasn’t a finger or a nugget.” Cost was a major issue, too. Some changes were expensive (fresh vegetables vs. canned), but others saved money (fresh chicken vs. breaded chicken patties), so Weber was able to make tradeoffs. Another challenge was training food-service employees. “They had to go from opening up a can of applesauce and boxes of chicken nuggets to making lasagna from scratch,” Weber says. “The mindset was, ‘That’s not what we do, and that’s not what kids eat.’”

Daugherty anticipates similar challenges, but hopes his culinary background gives him the expertise to help schools figure out how to balance the costs of working with fresh ingredients. But he must first overcome his status as an outside agitator. Daugherty’s penchant for publicity-before-planning has put the district a bit on the defensive, yet staff members say they still welcome his help, and are discussing how they might work together.

Daugherty says he’s trying to tread more carefully—but in the next breath mentions he’d like to petition the governor to get on board. “I know it seems scattered,” he says of his emerging plans and nascent relationship with the district. “And I’m a little scared. If I were just here to cook dinner for these people, it would be pretty easy.”