Tufts University

You Can Lead a Kid to Miso...

Bill IdellAfter 18 years as a professional chef, Bill Idell, N02, is facing his most finicky customers, by far.

In his white toque and chef's coat, Bill Idell is racing through the controlled chaos of the kitchen. Steam from the giant, sizzling wok of pad Thai thickens the air. Over the clatter of washing pots, he directs his servers on plating the hand-wrapped fresh Vietnamese spring rolls, Chinese dumplings, edamame and soy dipping sauce. In the back of his mind, he wonders if his customers will appreciate the chicken breast with lemongrass and Thai basil roasted in banana leaves and accompanied by a mango salad.

But he has no time to second guess the menu. His patrons will be here any moment for the lunch seating, all 230 of them. And he has only until recess to win them over.

Idell, a graduate of Tufts' Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, is making lunch at the Marblehead Community Charter Public School a learning experience. As director of nutrition services, he has to use every culinary trick from his 18 years in the restaurant world and every marketing strategy he took away from the Nutrition Communication program to keep the students coming back.

"I've worked in fine dining where people are paying $28 a plate, and without a doubt, students are the toughest clientele I have ever had to deal with," he says.

This is not a typical lunch day. The Taste of Asia event is one of Idell's semimonthly buffets designed to surreptitiously educate the fourth through eighth graders about good, healthful food. It takes a month of planning, a score of volunteers and grant money from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts' Healthy Choices program and Whole Foods Market.

"Part of what I'm trying to do is help kids gain respect for food, understand there is a connection with food to the environment, an historical connection, a cultural connection," Idell says. "All of that put together, I feel, will make kids at least say, 'There is some significance here, so I'll taste this plate of weird things wrapped in banana leaves.' "

Cafeterias as battlegrounds

The reality is that school cafeterias have become nutritional battlegrounds. Nationwide, more than 15 percent of children ages 6 to 19 are obese, a percentage that has increased dramatically in the last two decades. Not surprisingly, food served in schools has come under scrutiny. Prompted by obesity concerns, a new federal law requires that every school district in the country that participates in the federal school lunch program must have a "local wellness policy" in place by this fall. A bipartisan group in Congress recently introduced legislation that would require high nutritional standards for all foods sold on school premises.

One of Idell's solutions is to introduce students to healthful foods from different cultures through his program, Around the World with Five Cuisines. He started last year with France, and this year has moved on to Mexico, the Middle East, Asia and Italy.

Cooking and serving the food is just a piece of his plan. He also markets it. A couple days before each buffet, he presents a slide show to the entire student body, talking about how the cuisine developed and describing the ingredients. After the meal, he has the students complete surveys, rating the new foods from "awesome" to "bad" or "didn't try."

Spring rolls

Spring rolls are one of the many healthy treats Idell offers students.

For the first several buffets, he didn't even mention that the foods were, for the most part, very healthy.

"As soon as people hear that it's good for you, forget about it," he says. For the Taste of Asia presentation, he felt the students were ready for some nutritional basics. But he kept it simple, paring it to two points: Eat as many fresh fruits and vegetables as possible and eat a wide variety of foods.

"Even bringing up the [food] pyramid and serving sizes—it just opens up a door to confusion," he says.

Like any good marketer, he begins with focus groups. His weekly cooking class, which students sign up for as an enrichment course, is the perfect place to try out recipes and adapt them for the students' palates. Mushrooms, for example, are "too squirmy and brown." Shellfish is usually a no-go. And for the pad Thai, he was careful to leave out the fish sauce, which just plain smells.

Then comes the parent outreach. He sends an e-mail in advance of each buffet event, explaining his goals and asking for volunteers to help in the kitchen.

"The parents who do come, they see the food and they see us breaking our backs to do this," Idell says. "They say, 'I've got more faith in school lunch now.' It's built a lot of good will. Next year I want to raise the prices. I think parents now will understand why." (continued)

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