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Quest Launches School-Specific Sustainability/Healthy Dining Program

Quest Food Management Services, Inc., of Lombard, IL, has launched Quest for Life, a new foodservice program for school cafeterias.

“Quest is completely changing school foodservice programs,” says Quest President Mike McTaggart. "Quest for Life is about dropping the box cutter and picking up a knife. This program is truly about going back to our roots as it concerns food and the way we think about it, prepare it and consume it. It’s about that old fashioned notion of making food from scratch that is healthy, tastes great and the entire process becomes part of our education.”

Quest for Life was launched at the Latin School of Chicago in the summer of 2010 after a group of parents and the school began searching for more healthy food options for students that went along with the school’s mission to be more environmentally conscious. It strives to make food part of education, utilizing a culinary team of three Chicago-based chefs: Executive Chef Brad Newman, Executive Sous Chef Steven Obendorf and Pastry Chef Meghan Pollard.

The chefs create freshly prepared meals made with locally and regionally sourced ingredients, and then take an active role in educating the students about where their food comes from and what ingredients go into the dishes they prepare.

“One of the important things we feel as a staff is to get the kids involved in the preparation so they understand the methods we use in the kitchen,” says Obendorf. "Getting the kids to see where the food comes from and what ingredients go into each dish really encourages them to try new flavors, new ingredients and new dishes, and that’s something that we all feel strongly about.”

“Our chefs explain to the kids on daily basis what they are eating, where it comes from, and what they can expect,” adds McTaggart, who meets with students from all grade levels to talk about the food they are eating and get their feedback. “Students are honest and excited when they are listened to and they are experiencing what it is to have a voice, to be understood and be part of real change. We work together to create mission statements and meeting agendas and they are part of this process."

Prior to the introduction of the Quest for Life program the students were eating standard school cafeteria food. Now, the menus not only incorporate local, sustainable ingredients and are made from scratch, but students learn about what they are eating and also which farm, farmer or vendor it is coming from. Quest has begun to establish partnerships with some local Illinois farmers including Dietzler Farms, a source for meat products, and Seedling Farm, which supplies fresh produce.

The scratch cooking includes slow-roasting turkey and beef, which is then cooled and sliced for sandwiches. Also, Pastry Chef Pollard makes the pizza crust from scratch and Newman roasts tomatoes for a homemade pasta sauce or salsa. Desserts, cookies, granola and even the donuts when offered are made entirely from scratch. So far some of the menus have included:

• Dietzler Farm ground beef hamburgers with house-made Seedling Farm apple and cabbage coleslaw and blueberry pomegranate granita

• Gunthorp Farm carnitas tacos with guacamole, Chihuahua cheese, roasted tomato salsa, crema, limes and traditional cinnamon-scented Mexican flan

• Latin Kitchen dim sum with steamed and pan-fried dumplings, Asian bao with house-made dipping sauces, fresh spinach gomae, and Organic Valley chocolate milk

• Dijon-style stuffed portabella mushroom, Swiss chard, smashed fingerling potatoes with Garden tarragon

• Tallgrass Beef or vegan crimson lentil stew, sautéed broccoli, mashed Yukon Gold and russet potatoes and fruit salad

• Crispy non-GMO tofu in sweet chili sauce, steamed Kuzimi brown rice, pan-fried asparagus and poached pears with fresh clotted cream

Currently Quest for Life has a 22-person kitchen team employed for the Quest for Life program. Since their start in July 2010, the chefs have overhauled the kitchen spaces, creating and building a bakery area, switching over all the aluminum cookware to stainless-steel and making other changes that allow for more fresh, health-conscious cooking. The kitchen is always open for tours to parents and staff, and the chefs have started offering a cooking class to some parents who are interested in learning how to make their own food from scratch.

Quest for Life engages with the school in other ways as well. The team worked with students on preparing meals for community service projects and participated in classroom assignments that combine food with the curriculum.

Plans for the upcoming spring/summer 2011 season include expanding the lists of farms and farmers the school will source product from and dehydrating foods in-house.

“The box cutter is on its way out,” sats Mike McTaggart. “We will continue to strive to reach a healthy balance between local, quality and cost."

Quest for Life was designed with the intent that schools could implement portions or parts of the program or the whole program, depending on school budget and goals.

Quest Food Management Services has been operating in the school market in Illinois since 1985. Its clients include the Glenbrook High Schools and the Evergreen Park Community High School as well as the Latin School of Chicago.

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