Can Marc Vetri Save School Lunch?

Goodbye, rubbery nuggets, plastic trays and long cafeteria lines. The city's top chef and his team want to turn the midday meal on its head.

“WHEN I WAS GROWING UP, THE KITCHEN TABLE was the center of life,” says Vetri, the James Beard Foundation honoree and founder of the local Vetri Family restaurant empire that, in addition to Osteria, includes the eponymous Vetri, Amis, and the ready-to-open Alla Spina. He’s at Osteria, attending to some last-minute paperwork before hopping an afternoon flight to Italy, where he, Benjamin and Michaud plan to taste-test their way around the Bergamo region for menu inspiration. Tall, lanky and funny, he has a relaxed demeanor that’s at odds with the crazy pace he keeps, running three restaurants a day while overseeing the birth of a fourth.

“We set the table together,” Vetri, 45, says of his childhood. “We ate together, cleared the plates together. We’d talk about our day. Sometimes we’d argue. People would storm off. Then they came back and settled it, because the kitchen table was where we worked things out. We were learning interpersonal skills and problem-solving at the same time we were eating good food. Back then, I didn’t think it meant anything,” continues the father of three small children. “Now, I think it meant everything.”

Benjamin, 43—a short, genial guy whose daily uniform, a beautiful suit, is a business-y contrast to Vetri’s chef’s whites—is a Vetri Family partner and the restaurant group’s sommelier. The father of two school-age daughters, he laments how rarely families connect at mealtime in the way Vetri describes. “My wife and I and the kids were at a restaurant in New York, and we were all enjoying each other’s company,” he recalls. He was coloring with one daughter, his wife was playing cards with the other, and the family chatted while waiting for their entrées. “Across from me was this woman with two kids. Each kid had an iPad, and the mom was on her Kindle. None of them were talking to each other. It was so sad! They were eating at the same table, but they were in their own worlds.”

Obviously, Vetri and Benjamin—as well as Michaud, 34, their James Beard award-winning partner/chef and the new father of an infant girl—know that their business success relies upon pairing sublime cuisine with an environment that enhances the pleasure of eating it. Since starting families of their own, though, their belief in the power of the dining experience—whether at home, in a restaurant or, yes, in a school cafeteria—has deepened considerably. So they were intrigued, back in 2009, when a friend and frequent restaurant customer, Michael Rouse, sought their advice about feeding kids.

With his brother Bill, Michael owns the for-profit ESF Summer Camps, whose locations are spread over five states. Lesser known is their nonprofit after-school mentorship program, Dream Camp, that’s aimed at low-income children. In Philadelphia, its annual summer camp springs to life for five weeks every July on the sprawling campus of historic Girard College.

Where things became “un-dreamlike,” Rouse told Vetri and Benjamin, was in the cafeteria. The Dream Campers’ low family incomes entitled them to free lunches funded by the state. But the food provided through the subsidy of $2.66 per child was fried, canned and/or over-processed.­ (Not a surprising find, considering that according to a study published in 2009, American school lunches contain more sodium and less fiber than is recommended by federal dietary guidelines.)

Rouse suspected that his Dream Camp’s nutritionally out-of-whack lunch offerings were contributing to a heartbreaking problem he saw among returning campers­ each year: They were becoming overweight. Plus, the junk in their lunches made them act out in ways they never did before they’d eaten it. For the poorest of the campers, the subsidized lunch was the only full, daily meal they could count on. What was its content teaching them about healthy food choices? And for all the kids, what was the presentation and delivery of the meal—unappetizing-looking food slopped onto a tray—telling them about their worthiness to enjoy sustenance?

So, Rouse asked, would Vetri and Benjamin redesign Dream Camp’s menu?

His request came at a fortuitous time. The year before, Vetri and Benjamin had launched the Vetri Foundation for Children, a charity to support kids’ causes. At the time, their main recipient was Alex’s Lemonade Stand, which benefits children’s cancer research. But the men were looking for projects that would help kids see the link between healthy eating and healthy living.

“We’ll not only design your menu,” they told Rouse emphatically, “we’ll cook it ourselves.”

But, oh, the red tape that had to be cut, reshaped and reattached as Rouse and Chef Michaud worked with the state to create an affordable lunch that would appeal to kids while adhering to federal guidelines. The nutritional content of proposed menu items had to be broken down to their individual nano-ingredients. Portion size had to be assured, so that each child was served the federally mandated amounts of protein, vitamins, minerals, sodium, fiber and fat. In the past, portion control was easy enough to manage, since kids would be given, say, one pre-measured scoop of mashed potatoes or one pre-weighed piece of meat by a lunch lady loading the stuff onto trays. Not that anyone was tracking whether the kids actually ate the food once they got to their seats.

Which was a big reason why the new Dream Camp lunch would do away with two things so ubiquitous in American schools that it’s tough to envision any cafeteria without them: the lunch line, and random seating.

“Imagine you’re at home and you make dinner for yourself and your kids,” explains Vetri. “What if everyone put food on their plates and then went to different parts of the house to eat it? You’d be missing out on an important part of the meal—being together.”

So at Dream Camp, the food would be served family-style, just as it was at Osteria’s Kitchen Table. No flimsy plates, cups and utensils, either, since paper, cardboard and plastic would both create waste and cheapen the dining experience. Designated seating would be 10 kids to a round table, plus a camp counselor. And one camper—dubbed “table captain” and given a white jacket for the meal—would retrieve plates and bowls of food from the kitchen.

Before anyone lifted a fork, the chef (often Michaud or Vetri) would stand in the middle of the cafeteria and explain to campers what they were about to eat, how it was prepared, and what made it nutritious. Then came the passing of the plates, which were heaped with items that looked and tasted nothing like the Day-Glo mac-and-cheese and gray chicken nuggets they’d replaced: panko-crusted chicken tenders. Baked ziti with chickpea-and-cucumber salad. Roasted chicken with mushroom risotto. Sautéed shrimp with gazpacho. Strawberries with mint cream. Lemon granita. Melon salad.

“Many of these kids had never had a vegetable or fruit that wasn’t canned,” says Benjamin, recalling how some campers just stared at their plates. “They were wary of food they didn’t recognize. We needed them to at least try everything.”

So a reward system was devised, in which children earned points for each new food item they tried and for finishing their portions. Everyone figured it would take a few weeks for the campers to adjust their palates and attitudes to the new system. Because kids are kids, right? But, astonishingly, the children were hooked by the second day.

In addition, the counselors introduced “table topics” for discussion, encouraging civil behavior and respectful conversation. The wholesome interaction was new for many kids who, at home, ate their meals alone or in front of a TV. At the end of lunch, the children cleared their tables, returning dishes to the cafeteria workers.

It was a different way of being, a Kitchen Table way of being. And something wonderful resulted. The bad-behavior incidents that used to soar in the afternoon took a plunge.

“We all noticed the difference,” says Rouse. “Before, we’d have about two dozen kids acting up after lunch, and we’d have to get them focused and calmed down. Now, we had maybe two a day who needed to be redirected. I think it’s because they were finally eating healthy, balanced food.”