Tangerine chicken, nachos supreme, spicy chicken tenders and cheese pizzas may go by the wayside as Orange County Public Schools looks into a pilot program to change school menus.
The program, inspired by First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign, is pairing some of the top chefs from around Orange County with schools to come up with more nutritious items to fill their menus. The program aims to educate children on making the right food choices to help combat the growing epidemic of childhood obesity.
"I am getting the best help from the chefs that I thought ever possible," said Lora Gilbert, OCPS senior director of Food and Nutrition Services. "It's absolutely wonderful."
Chefs have already begun working with Food and Nutrition Services in 16 different schools to come up with better ways of making cafeteria food taste better with fewer calories and less fat.
Ollie Brown, Food Service Manager of Dommerich Elementary in Maitland, said feedback from the program has been very positive.
"This pilot program is going to be very, very successful," she said. "It's going to bring a lot of awareness to the community, the children and the parents."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 26 percent of Florida high-school students, and 28 percent of low-income children between ages 2 and 5 are in danger of going from overweight to obese.
Thomas Gentile, an American Culinary Federation member and a former chef of Disney who is currently designing his own Winter Springs restaurant, hopes he can help lower these statistics by volunteering his time to work with Avalon Middle School to develop healthy recipes that will work best for students.
"I believe in giving back," Gentile said. "A lot of chefs from the Orlando area have volunteered their time, talents and knowledge of food to help fight obesity in our school systems."
Healthy, tasty and cost-effective?
Gilbert said the chefs involved are figuring out what items are not only healthy and liked by the kids, but cost-effective for the schools.
"The other side of the coin is that we need to teach them (the chefs) what our business is and the restrictions, because they probably cook in restaurants where they have a higher food cost than $1 per meal, which is about what we have," she said.
OCPS serves more than 26 million meals and snacks each year, which is about 143,000 breakfast and lunch meals daily. The department brings in more than $45 million in federal dollars to the school district.
But being cost effective is not the only hurdle for finding the right items.
Charlene Michelman, food service manager of Avalon Middle School, said it can sometimes be difficult to find items the kids will eat.
One of the projects Avalon is currently working on is "grab-and-go healthy" items such as southwestern wraps and vegetarian burritos.
"We found that if it's easier to eat (for kids) and more eye-appealing, then they will tend to take it and eat it," Michelman said.
Getting teachers involved
She said they are trying to get not only students and parents involved, but are also looking to find ways to involve teachers.
"We've met with our family consumer sciences teacher and are looking to find ways that the chef can assist her on educating the children on nutrition," she said.
Gentile said everyone involved is excited about the partnership, and are looking forward to the changes they hope the program will bring.
"It's all about nutrition for the kids, and that's what we are here to do: provide that nutritional value," he said. "We need to stop this obesity."