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.

VETRI, BENJAMIN AND MICHAUD WERE SO MOVED by the changes they witnessed at Rouse’s Dream Camp that they began to dream of a world where all kids, not just Dream Campers, benefited from such a respectful, common-sense approach to lunch. They approached the Philadelphia School District about installing Eatiquette in the city’s public schools. But the district’s behemoth size, complicated work rules and uneven allocation of kitchens among its 200-plus buildings required far too much up-front tinkering with a lunch concept that, frankly, needed to be piloted on a much smaller scale.

Enter Pastor Herb Lusk. Football trivia fans will remember him as the Eagles’ long-ago running back who, in 1977, was the first NFL player to drop to a knee in the end zone to murmur a thankful prayer for the touchdown he’d just scored. Lusk eventually left sports for the ministry and in 1982 took over then-struggling-but-now-mammoth­ Greater Exodus Baptist Church at North Broad and Brown streets. Its social-service arm, People for People, includes an 11-year-old, 500-plus-student charter school.

Last summer, while Lusk was dining at Osteria, Benjamin spoke passionately with him about the Dream Camp lunch experience and asked if the Eatiquette program could be piloted at People for People’s school. Lusk’s immediate answer was, “Let’s do it.”

And that’s how two school officials came to lead the Vetri Foundation’s newest hire, chef Tia McDonald, on an inspection of the school’s cafeteria in early January.­ It’s an odd Z-shaped room whose fairly modern kitchen anchors the middle and is edged by the tray line. With narrowed eyes, McDonald opens walk-in refrigerators and makes note of needed equipment. “We’ll need a big immersion mixer, for the soups,” says McDonald, who honed her fine-dining chops in New York under famed chef Jonathan Waxman and as a senior executive chef at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, overseeing the creation of 14,000 meals a day.

New round tables and chairs have been ordered to replace the cafeteria’s long tables and benches. The room’s drab, scuffed beige walls have already been repainted in vibrant green and yellow hues, and pretty window treatments will soon be installed, so that the room feels beautiful. Chef jackets will be ordered for the table captains. Teachers and parents are being recruited and trained to man the tables. Assuming the to-do list is whittled down on schedule, the school will have launched Eatiquette by the end of February.

Whether the program, or different versions of it, can be extrapolated to schools of all sizes and demographics will depend a lot on the success of its implementation at People for People. Fortuitously, Eatiquette is unfolding at an opportune time: First Lady Michelle Obama has invited America’s chefs to partner with schools to create more nutritious foods for the country’s children. But the challenge now is to get kids to at least try the fresh salads and other healthy offerings that are increasingly being prepared in their cafeterias—one reason Eatiquette, which has barely left the dream stage, has already intrigued one very knowledgeable observer of the school-lunch scene.

“I’ve not heard of any other school doing something like this, where they turn not just the food but the social setting on its head,” says Susan Levin, director­ of nutrition­ education for the Washington, D.C.-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. “If you offer nutritious choices to children on a lunch line alongside the burgers and fries, what do you think they’re going to choose? What’s been missing, in the healthy-school-lunch mission­, is a change in the dynamic of how we offer up the healthier food. This sounds like it has real possibilities.”

For Marc Vetri and his partners, the bigger possibility is that children will learn they’re important enough to enjoy nutritious meals in a setting that lets them leave lunch as happily sated as grown-ups at fine restaurants.

“It’s not easy to make the change,” says Vetri, who, with his wife, is mulling where their oldest child will begin kindergarten in the fall. (City dwellers, they’ve narrowed their choices to their neighborhood public school and a nearby charter.) “It takes work. It takes the involvement of everyone­—the staff, the teachers, the lunch workers, everybody. But the results can change the whole dynamic of a school; they can save a school. Once you know that, who wouldn’t want better for kids?”