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Star chefs create vended school lunches

Culinarians from Disney and LongHorn Steakhouse are among those developing reimbursable meals for pilot launch in Orlando high school.

Students at Edgewater High School in the Orange County Public Schools in Florida will have a new lunch option this fall: three vending machines that will dispense lunches created especially for the program by culinarians from Walt Disney World, among others. It’s a small world after all.

The high-powered culinary talent, which includes Disney’s Michael Thompson and Gary Jones, LongHorn Steakhouse Executive Chef Michael Senich and chef/owner Kevin Fonzo of locally celebrated eatery K Restaurant in Orlando, came together as part of a program spearheaded by a nonprofit called Feed More Kids, which seeks to promote better and healthier choices in schools as a way to get more kids to eat them.

The culinarians gathered at Edgewater High in late July to try their hands at formulating interesting, kid-friendly meal choices that meet federal school meal guidelines as well as fiscal constraints and will work in the refrigerated machines (i.e., no hot items).

OK, so no truffles…

Each was asked to come up with at least one breakfast and two lunch items. The final choices will be unveiled just before classes begin for Orange County Schools on Aug. 24, but reports from the scene indicated experimentation with items like a croissant with mustard sauce, a flour tortilla vegetable wrap and Buffalo chicken with spicy mayo and chips on the side.

“They’re used to creating $10, $12, $15 items, so for them to come up with something that’s between $1 and $2 is quite a challenge,” says Feed More Kids CEO Art Dunham.

The genesis of the program comes from Dunham’s long experience in school foodservice, which included almost 30 years with nutrition services for the Pinellas County Schools in Florida. He says one of the things he noticed was how reimbursable meal vending machines he installed in his district boosted participation.

“After we put in the vending machines, we were feeding 192,000 more students per year than before, or 50 to 60 more a day at each of the high schools,” he says. “The following year, it went up to 257,000 more meals, or 70 to 80 more kids per high school per day. These were kids we were not getting before, the ones who didn’t want to stand in line, didn’t want to go to the cafeteria, didn’t want to talk to people, whatever.”

After he retired from Pinellas, Dunham helped found Feed More Kids as a nonprofit that could buy vending machines with donated funds and install them in schools that needed participation bumps in their secondary school sites but couldn’t afford the investment. Dunham says a machine holding 98 meals costs around $13,000, and most sites need several to be effective.

“We went live and active July 1 and in the first month we raised $50,000,” he says.

Edgewater High was chosen as the test site. “Since we’re a Florida organization, we thought we’d start with a Florida school district first, but we have the ability to go nationwide and put them in any school district that could use it.”

He says if a donor wants to target its funds to benefit a specific district, Feed More Kids is happy to go along.

The use of celebrity culinarians to formulate menu items for the vending meal program was prompted by the success with such an approach at Miami-Dade County Schools, Dunham says.

“[Miami-Dade Nutrition Services Director] Penny Parham invited [celebrity chef] Michelle Bernstein to help her make menus that the kids would like two years ago and had lots of success. So we thought that might be something we could try and get some interest from local chefs. Disney was more than happy to supply their chefs for the couple days it took to get this started and some of the menu items will be named after the chefs. We’re hoping that will entice some of the students.”

As an added enticement, a random number of the vended meals will include prizes such as theater tickets.

Contact Mike Buzalka at [email protected]

TAGS: K-12 Schools
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