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Boston schools is expanding the from-scratch, customizable lunch option My Way Cafe.

Boston schools expand from-scratch cooking program

Almost half of the district’s schools will have updated kitchens and menus.

After learning that the Boston School District had the money to operate an improved dining program but not appropriately equipped kitchens, the Shah Family Foundation partnered with the city to bring out-of-date facilities up to speed. Dubbed My Way Café, the pilot program began in 2017 in four East Boston grade schools where the kitchens were updated so that food could be cooked on-site. As a result, lunch participation went up by 15% and there was as much as a 40 cents savings per plate compared with the former heat-and-serve foodservice model. In 2018, the program rolled out to an additional 26 schools and starting this fall, My Way Café will expand another 25 schools.

My Way Café not only builds out kitchens to enable scratch cooking, but it’s also centered on menus that kids can customize and that feature fresh fruit and vegetable bars every day. For example, as part of the My Way Cafe elementary school menu, students can build their own tacos with options such as beef, beans, cilantro, brown rice, salsa and cheese. On the high school menu, an example lunch is banh mi pulled chicken sandwich with a choice of chicken with teriyaki sauce or marinated tofu served with lo mein noodles and sides of roasted carrots and rainbow coleslaw. The idea is that more students will eat school meals if they can customize what ends up on their plate.

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The My Way Cafe sees participation increases of 15% and savings of 40 cents per meal.

“We work with chefs around the city of Boston to develop these recipes,” says Laura Benavidez, executive director, food and nutrition services, ‎Boston Public Schools. “We then work with a local company that co-packs items such as salsa or spices mixed for our recipes’ specifications. The ingredients then get distributed to schools where they are cooked on-site. For example, a baking mix is distributed to the school, where staff bake it. They're making scones and muffins and they’ll be this great smell that the kids love.”

Since the pilot, the program now includes middle and high school in addition to elementary schools and it also includes breakfast as well as lunch. In its current scope, the meals of the My Way Café program are about 30 cents cheaper to prepare than the pre-packaged version. “I anticipate that savings to get higher simply because we’re going to be able to use our volume in our favor when buying fresh and unprocessed ingredients,” says Benavidez.  

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The My Way Cafe salad bar is often the only fresh fruits and vegetables that some students receive.

The steady expansion to more schools means that by this fall, almost half of the district’s 125 schools will be on the My Way Café program. As money become available from matched funds from the City of Boston and the Shah Family Foundation, schools are selected for the program based on logistics such as transportation of ingredients as well as neighborhood need.

“Boston’s free and reduced-price meal eligibility is already high at 73% but looking at specific neighborhoods, some were as high as 80%,” says Benavidez. “We also consider neighborhood’s opportunity index, which measures other factors like the crime rate and socio-economic status of the whole neighborhood. The bottom line in that, in many cases, My Way’s salad and fruit bar is the only fresh produce kids will have access to in their day.”

With the goal of installing My Way Café in all of the district’s 125 schools, Benavidez anticipates some challenges, specifically in schools where kids eat in their classrooms because there’s no cafeteria and no spare square footage to build one. She says they’ve also had some headaches making sure retrofitted kitchens also have appropriately sized water heaters to match the expanded foodservice and warewashing needs. 

Another key takeaway she’s noticed in expanding the program to more schools is that giving students more choice in what they eat means they’ll need more time for lunch. “It takes them a little longer to move through the line so we work with the school’s administration to perhaps adjust the schedule – even an extra five minutes helps,” says Benavidez.

While increased participation is a very welcomed outcome of the program, it also means that cafeterias are suddenly packed with diners. “We’ve had schools adjust schedules or the time the kids go out for recess to give more space in the cafeteria,” she says.

Beyond an increase in student participation, more teachers are also choosing to dine on-site thanks to the improved menus and preparation of My Way Cafe. “I think this also speaks to the increase in participation,” says Benavidez, “because when students see their teachers eating our food, it’s the best kind of marketing you could hope for.”

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