Good, Healthy and Cool School Food

By Analiese Paik

Chef John Turenne teaches McKinley Elementary School cafeteria manager Pat Brienza how to make pizza from scratch. Photo c/o Sarah Lehberger/Afterglow Photos.

John Turenne, chef/owner of Sustainable Food Systems, entered the café where we agreed to meet for his interview dressed in a white chef jacket and black chef pants, fresh from a day at Burr Elementary School in Fairfield. He has become a bit of a celebrity in town since arriving a few weeks ago to work with Fairfield Public Schools’ food service staff on a limited school lunch makeover. During the interview, at least three people recognized him from work in our eleven elementary schools plus one of our middle schools, and exchanged smiles and warm greetings.

Chef John Turenne and the very proud kitchen staff at McKinley Elementary School - Pat Brienza, Anna Zdu-Nordle, Lin Koslowski and Jadira Rivera. Photo c/o Sarah Lehberger/Afterglow Photos.

Turenne’s presence in our school cafeterias could easily unsettle any worker, but his disarming approach quickly wins over the staff. “I’m a guest in your kitchen” he tells them. “This is your home and I’m here to share what I know and also to learn from you.” Once the cafeteria workers overcome their fear and anxiety over what he’s trying to do, he introduces some new recipes, trains and works with the staff to produce the made-from-scratch foods efficiently and economically, then communicates with kids and parents to adeptly introduce the dishes.

An enthusiastic thumbs up on the pizza lunch! Photo c/o Sarah Lehberger/Afterglow Photos.

Fortunately for us, chefs are cool, and that makes Chef John, as he’s known to the kids, instantly likable. As an ice breaker, he tells students in each K-5 classroom he visits that he’s worked with celebrities like First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver on his Food Revolution show to create good, healthy and cool school food. Realizing he’s not just another restaurant chef, the star struck kids are ripe and ready to hear about what he’s doing in their school. “And guess what we’re going to do?” he asks. “Good, healthy and cool school food.” The kids are sufficiently worked up at that point to have formed a bond with him, the strength of which becomes evident the next day as they call out excited hellos to him in the hallway.

Another thumbs up and a smile. Photo c/o Sarah Lehberger/Afterglow Photos.

Turenne spends half his energy communicating with kids in the dining room and classroom. Day two, he dons his chef toque and works the cafeteria to get the kids fired up for the samples they’re about to taste. “Here’s what you tell your parents today: There was a chef in school today and he made us chips. Kale chips. Green chips.” After tasting the new foods, kids vote thumbs up, thumbs down, and sideways thumbs to signal indifference. “At Burr Elementary School, the kitchen staff said ‘They’re never going to like this.’ And most people would say kids won’t eat kale” says Turenne. But the results were impressive: seventy-five percent of students tried the kale chips and two third of those liked them. “I’m pleasantly surprised by my interaction with the kids, but not surprised by the extent to which they’re willing to try new things.” When a student says he doesn’t like the food being introduced, Turenne gives a reassuring “It’s okay and thanks for trying something new.”

Two vegetables on the tray and still a thumbs up. And one's spinach! Photo c/o Sarah Lehberger/Afterglow Photos.

“The biggest challenge to changing school food is participation levels” says Turenne. “It’s a business and we must rely on kids and parents wanting to buy lunch. Participation rates can go down when beloved food items are removed from the menu. That’s why communication is key.” Feedback from parents has been universally positive and a number have been present during the tastings to try the foods for themselves. Regrets? “I wish I had more time with the kids” he says, knowing that repeated exposure has the power to transform them into more adventurous eaters. “If we can change kids now, we make the world a better place for the future.”

14 thoughts on “Good, Healthy and Cool School Food”

    • James,glad you like John’s work. Re the pizza, apparently not or Fairfield Public Schools wouldn’t have paid him to teach them how to make it. I believe it always came out of a box, frozen, to be reheated.

      • We all knew how to make pizza. John did not have to teach us how to do it. Apparently people should get there information right before they put down the food service.

    • James cafe workers did know how to make pizza. Don’t know where that came from but it’s untrue.

  1. Congratulations to the parents, administrators, students and lunch staff of Fairfield! I know this has been a long time coming. John is such a reassuring and knowledgeable presence; he is the perfect guy for the job. Here’s hoping that the school community commits to allowing some time for everyone to adapt to his program – and maybe more kids will try the kale chips when they see their friends enjoying them!

    • I was hoping you’d see this Amy! It has been a long time in the coming and each and every positive encounter our school lunch team has had with John and advocates like you has helped bring this to fruition. I surely hope they bring him back to continue this critically important work.

  2. This is encouraging. I’ve always believed that it was the system rather than the kids that was resisting real food in the cafeteria. If only all schools had kitchens that are equipped for actual cooking rather than keeping warm…

  3. I love the ladyz at mkc they work so hard to make everyone happy but before chef john came they already made home made pizza from scatch

  4. I really don’t think that fairfield had to get John in and teach cafe and manager workers what they already knew and been doing for a very long time. This is all the same thing’s that we have done and try to do. Kale Chips we have tryed them and 93% of the kids did not like them. As far as pizza we been making our own pizza from scratch for a very long time. kitchen’s are equipped for cooking and we keep our food fresh and hot. They paid John thousand’s of dollar’s to come in and make thing better??? It’s unfair that he is getting all the credit for different foods that we are already doing and I know we do a great job feeding our kids the best we can with what we have.

  5. I’m honored to have had the chance to work with so many people who all have the same thing in common: “To do what’s the best for our kids.” The parents have been a driving force that’s kept me focused; the food service workers have proved to be great to work with and have been very welcoming; and most importantly, our kids have been filled with enthusiasm. Such a gift, we are all so blessed. Thank you Fairfield!

    • John we are so thrilled to have you working in our schools. We are fortunate to have an environment that conducive to change and the right people in our kitchens to make that happen. I often think of small school kitchens set up and equipped only to reheat and think of how lucky we are not to have that as a hurdle.

  6. This comment was submitted by Doreen Munsell, Director of Finance and Business Services in Fairfield Public Schools, in response to the other comments made on this blog post by school food service staff: “John Turenne was hired to help provide tastier, quality, more nutritious meals; train staff as needed; improve communication between the food service program, students and parents; and increase participation. The characteristic that set John apart from other consultants was his approach. John believes in a balanced approach to sustainable change in food service. John likens a successful food service program to a wheel with the following five spokes: communication, community, facility, food & food products and fiscal responsibility. He states, if we want that wheel to effectively perform to its optimum potential, it requires all five spokes to support it and work collaboratively. If one or more spokes are neglected or not supporting to their capacity, the entire wheel will suffer. It’s time to support each other and work collaboratively towards our common goal. We all want what’s best for our students.” Doreen Munsell, Director of Finance and Business Services, Fairfield Public Schools

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