On a Mission to Improve Nutrition: Behind the Scenes in the Kitchen

Sep 14, 2016 | All School, Highlights, Impact, Inquiry, Lower School News, Middle School News, Preschool News, Upper School News

ba2_0518Chef Allen Clark, SAGE Dining Service’s Food Service Director for Mount Vernon, can be found talking to students and faculty during the lunch hours on both Founders and Glenn Campuses. Frequently he is seen pointing to something, asking someone, “Have you tried this?”
With a rich background in food service, Chef Allen brings deep knowledge and understanding of all things culinary to Mount Vernon. In just his three years working with the School, he has roasted a pig over an open fire pit, planted an herb garden with students, made pizza with preschoolers to reinforce their learning of fractions, and increased our health inspection score to 100.
This year, his goal is to share more about the foundation of food – where it comes from, how it grows, the nutritional benefits, a variety of combinations, and basic nutritional value.
img_4441Chef Allen shares, “I have started to source our food from a local  produce aggregator called the Common Market. They help local farmers with technical expertise, while developing markets for their products. Today I got apples from BJ Reese Orchards in Ellijay, but I have also been sourcing my apples from Merciers Orchard in Blue Ridge. We purchased several varieties of lettuce from Atlanta Harvest, who a grower in Lakewood; red bell peppers and cabbage from the West Georgia Farmers Cooperative, which is largely Veteran Owned Farms in the LaGrange area; and sweet potatoes from Haynes Farm in Cullman Alabama, just over the Georgia Border. I have made a request to Common Market about bringing farmers in to talk to our students during lunch and to possibly poll students for items that we could preorder to be grown specifically for Mount Vernon. I’m grateful to be able to support local agriculture and bring very fresh produce in for our students.”
img_4526There is also an emphasis on how food is prepared. Chef Allen points out, “We are constantly working to improve our offering for our students. Over the summer we added new equipment in the kitchen to facilitate the process. First is an industrial-grade steamer, which allows fresh vegetables to be cooked quickly, while keeping more of the vitamins and minerals in the food. Second is a char-broiler, which we are using almost daily to grill meat and vegetables — lowering fat needed to cook and adding the fresh-grilled flavor. I have heard that parents in carpool are intrigued by the aromas coming from the kitchen. Both of these additions allow us to prepare fresh food for a growing campus population.”
“I have a real personal commitment to the nutrition and healthy eating habits of our students. I know that you can’t tell by looking at me, but I’m pretty big. It has not had a huge effect on my health, but my joints are sore, I have hypertension and was recently diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. All of these conditions are weight-related. I didn’t get this way overnight, but because I wasn’t taught to be aware of what I was eating and how nutrition affected weight, I have grown over the years.”
Recently in an effort to teach students about the negative impacts of food waste, Chef Allen worked with the fifth grade class. Making the experience visible, he took students on the journey of a particular vegetable they find every day in the cafeteria salad bar–the carrot. Inviting a local grower to school, together they showed the many steps it takes and the number of people involved in providing food for people to eat. He also emphasized that food is the largest component of the U.S. landfills and that 40% of all food is thrown away.
And Outside of the Kitchen…
Additionally, to reinforce the message coming from the kitchen, Lower School Science teacher Eileen Fennelly will be introducing a few projects to her students, including planting and tending on-campus gardens and tracking participation with a self-monitoring system to try the various salads offered in the cafe. Fennelly shares, “Chef Allen and I are collaborating about the garden and the foods the children are growing. From that conversation we thought about introducing new and unusual fruits and vegetables each week and surveying the children to see what they liked and did not from what was offered. We are trying to introduce fruits and vegetables that have different tastes and vitamins and minerals. I love this survey because some of the children have shared certain Indian vegetable dishes that we might not have known about otherwise. We are also going to have a healthy choices checklist in each classroom — the children can record whether or not they even tried new foods.”

Chef Allen continues, “I’m not sure that you are aware of how much I enjoy being here and serving the Mount Vernon community. It is a worthwhile challenge and I love it.”