It seems that just about anyone who’s anyone – be it football players or former President Bill Clinton – can’t get enough of the kids in the West New York school system lately. It also seems the students can’t get enough of the kind of foods most of America’s youth runs screaming from – like broccoli rabe, for instance.
The slightly bitter, Italian veggie made a quick appearance (before being gobbled up) on one of the four pizzas Chef Kim Gray and Food Service Director Sal Valenza test-drove at Harry L. Bain Elementary School last month in order to determine which culinary creation they should enter into the “Fuel Up to Play 60” Rethink Pizza Contest.
“What’s more popular with kids than pizza?” Brenda Beltram from the American Dairy Association asked on May 17, when Giants’ former wide receiver Amani Toomer paid a visit to the school as a reward for their first-prize-winning Hawaiian, wheat-crust pie topped with grilled marinated chicken, pineapple, and low-fat mozzarella. The pizza, submitted alongside a video created by 16-year-old high school student Leonardo Hernandez, earned them a day of celebration.
“Eating healthy, and exercising: you see what it did for Mr. Toomer.” – John Fauta
“I remember when I played [football], it was very important for me to fuel up,” Toomer told the internationally-themed student pizza teams gathered in the gymnasium before he presented the school with $1,000 and ran pizza-related obstacle courses with them. “If you don’t fuel up right, the habits you create as a young child are going to be with you for the rest of your life.”
Superintendant John Fauta echoed Toomer’s sentiment. “Eating healthy, and exercising: you see what it did for Mr. Toomer,” Fauta said, shooting a smile at the very tall, very low body fat NFL star. “He’s the all-time leading receiver for the Giants. I’m so proud of you guys.”
Making food fun
Gray in her chef whites, and Valenza dressed in a bright green Hawaiian shirt and several different colored leis, ran from table to table in the school’s auditorium helping students make the pizzas they would eat that day for lunch. Each grade made up one of five teams – America, France, Italy, Mexico, and Tahiti – each with their own theme pizza.
The action-packed day, organized by Adriana Pievrahita, was a complete hit with the kids, each adorned with hats appropriate to their team’s country, hands full of the sort of fresh ingredients that have earned the school system many nutritional accolades.
Italian teamster Brianna Clemente, 8, stared at the whole tomatoes in front of her and wondered how they’d become a chopped-up topping. When she has made pizza at home in the past, her mother has done all the knife work, she said.
Her teammate Cindy Aldagracea, 9, had never made pizza before. “It is really cool that we’re doing this,” she said excitedly. “I like football and I love pizza, especially pepperoni.” She also loves the school’s extensive daily salad bar selections during lunchtime.
Students ran with pizza boxes in hand through agility courses in competition after washing off the tomato sauce. France won, which also meant that Gray’s boss had to call her “Queen of the Kitchen” for the remainder of the week.
Breaking the mold
“The sky’s the limit in this district,” Gray said. “Sal and I go on road trips all the time. The other night I saw a great beet salad at a restaurant, called him up and said, ‘Let’s make this happen for lunch.’” And they did. They’ve incorporated all kinds of seemingly kid un-friendly foods into their meals. A photo of their colorful watermelon radish salad is posted proudly online at Chef’s Corner, a page displayed prominently on the school district’s web site.
“The coolest thing about this district is that it’s way out of the ordinary,” Valenza said. “Everyone gets involved, from custodians to secretaries. Anyone with a passion for wellness gets into it, and we do it with the kids instead of to the kids.”
The district has a garden and a mid-day snack distribution with a selection of fresh fruits, and each new dish is a new daily lesson. Teachers have reported losing weight by eating school lunches, Gray said, and Board of Education members and town officials alike have been known to show up on their mid-day breaks for a bite.
You definitely know it’s not your average school when its chef walks down the hall or even down the local streets and can’t avoid being greeted and high-fived by students like a celebrity on a daily basis.
“It’s the most challenging job I’ve ever had, and it’s the most rewarding,” Gray explained. “I love to come to work every day, and every day we make a difference.”
To watch Hernandez’s video and find out more about Chef’s Corner, visit www.wnyschools.net and click on the link in the column on the left.
Gennarose Pope may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org