Nutrition & Schools: A 2007 Plan
It’s Fresh, Lo-Fat and Delicious, With DOE Chef Jorge Collazo at the Helm
Parents, If your children haven’t told you about nutritious, good-looking bagel, salad and pasta bars in their school cafeterias, you may want to get in touch with the DOE’s Department of School Food (inelegantly called in a former life the NYC Department of Education’s Office of School Food & Nutrition Services). More than a name change has been going on in this division, under the aegis of David Berkowitz, the Executive Director of the program, and Executive Chef, Jorge Collazo. Hired three years ago, the Culinary Institute of America (CIA)-trained chef has been carrying out a complex mandate to improve food services for the more than 1,400 schools, many with old facilities, that serve 850,000 meals a day—the largest such operation in the country. He is the first to hold the title, a position he attributes to Mayor Bloomberg’s pledge to make all city agencies more efficient and fiscally accountable.
Chef Collazo sits in a big, no-frills office in LIC, a large man given to a slow smile and careful articulation of his mission. A box of whole grain Raisin Bran sits on a ledge behind him, alongside chick pea curry and dehydrated water. Attractive posters dot one wall, and his desk is covered with evidence of his constant activity to streamline even further the selection, distribution and marketing of food and an enhancement of contract services. Born in Cuba, but resident in this country since the age of nine, Jorge Collazo originally thought of journalism as a career, but, working his way through college in restaurants, he soon became “enthralled” with the food business and left Temple University in order to train at the Culinary Institute of America. After various stints in the private sector, including an extended period as executive chef at a major law firm, he and his family moved to Vermont, where he continued his studies at the New England Culinary Institute (NECI). The word “study” is not inappropriate because it was there that he came to appreciate the larger picture, and when he taught a food and culture course at NECI, it was with an eye to showing new chefs how food reflects and influences religion, culture, terrain, equipment and tools. Vermont was also where Jorge Collazo first analyzed school “meal patterns”—free, reduced or paid, based on family income.
With a solid knowledge of best practices in the private sector and years of experience, his hiring by Schools Chancellor Joel Klein could not have been better timed. The country was becoming increasingly concerned about obesity in children and about the relationship between nutrition and academic performance. Going from Vermont to NYC, of course, was quite a change. Here, 70-75 percent K-12 receive free or reduced-cost food, while all students receive free breakfast. Attending to such large-scale needs requires extraordinary organization, including coordinating seven regional chefs, chefs in the individual schools, training the actual cooks, and ensuring a smooth and uniform application of recipes, menus and delivery systems.
The position also requires great sensitivity, particularly regarding the “stigma” students feel about a program that labels them as getting “welfare food.” Also challenging is the matter of administrative schedules—for some students, lunch is the last period of the day, and they simply go leave the building and pick up fast food on their way home. Long lines and a crowded cafeteria may also be a deterrent. A lot, however, can be done, the chef suggests. Life skills classes that teach sexual education could easily add a component on food and health. Perhaps, too, schools could take advantage of little used spaces, large and small—window boxes to grow herbs, a farm like the one at John Bowne High School in Queens, an empty classroom that might be turned into a center for hydroponics. Better advocacy and marketing, including more attractive signage on cafeteria food lines, would also be desirable. Chef Collazo would also like to see wider use of local produce, greater attention to minimally processed foods and batch cooking, so that cooks don’t always have to start from scratch, and a couple of policy changes at the USDA, including allowing for more local produce and for soy milk as a reimbursable item. Meanwhile, NYC’s tough nutritional standards, including low sodium and the elimination of artificial colors and sweeteners, whole milk, white bread and meat taken mechanically from the bone, now include zero trans fats. Of course, there are still no breakthroughs on broccoli yet, the chef reports, but he’s hoping. . . as Kermit from Sesame Street would say it’s not easy being green.#