Cafeteria Classroom

“Your diet is like a fingerprint,” says Dan Marek, school programs manager and chef for Whole Kids Foundation. “No single diet is going to work for every single one of us.” Marek is standing in front of a group of teachers in the Williams Elementary school cafeteria in South Austin, leading a healthy-eating workshop/cooking demo—part of the foundation’s Healthy Teachers Program. And despite his soft-spoken and gentle demeanor, he means business. He’s not here to school teachers on what they should or shouldn’t be eating or to tell them what products to buy (“I work for a foundation that’s sponsored by an organic grocery store, and I can’t even afford to buy organic 100 percent of the time.”) Instead, Marek’s mission is to arm the educators with both data and inspiration, so they can make their own informed choices about how to eat.

First presented as a pilot program to a couple hundred Austin Independent School District (AISD) teachers in 2011, the free two-hour class has now made it into the cafeterias of more than 1,500 AISD teachers and more than 15,000 teachers across the U.S. and Canada. The program is a way to give back to these dedicated professionals, who arguably work some of the longest hours for some of the lowest wages. But it also comes back around to their students, too. Studies have shown that teachers modeling healthy food choices have a far greater impact on kids’ food choices than previously thought. “It can make a world of difference if a teacher is walking around the classroom peeling an orange,” Marek says. “That smell fills the room, and you’re going to have a kid the next day show up with an orange, because they had their teacher as an influence.”

As participants sip just-prepared mini-smoothies made with mixed berries, kale and almond milk, Marek covers the foundation’s three simple healthy eating principles to promote optimal health: Eat a rainbow; eat leafy vegetables first; and eat as close to nature as possible. He moves on to the history of the questionable USDA food pyramid (“In 2005, all they really said was that you need to eat food”) and follows up with how to spot marketing buzzwords (“Natural” Cheetos, anyone?), read nutrition labels and decipher serving sizes. (Who knew that the serving size for “zero-calorie, fat-free” cooking-oil spray is a spray that lasts one-third of a second?)

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Marek’s “students” are attentive during his information-packed presentation—taking notes, asking questions and occasionally throwing out zingers. In a lively discussion about healthy fats, for example, one teacher yells from the back, “On Thanksgiving, I’m using butter!” And when Marek says he’s moving on to the cooking demo part of the class, the cafeteria erupts in cheers and applause. He walks the class through the steps of making roastedred pepper hummus, oil-free caramelized onions, Buddha bowls with cauliflower rice and fresh veggies, and chocolate pudding made with avocados, date paste and bananas—all of which is passed around the room in sample cups to eager hands. He also demonstrates some sharp knife skills on onions, peppers, avocados and kale, and while he chops, he offers up some practical tips for meal planning for the upcoming school week. These tips—and the easily adaptable recipe handouts—are like gold to the busy professionals. “I don’t have time to experiment in the kitchen,” says Lauren Fritz, a special-education teacher. “I have to have time before I go to the store to Pinterest recipes.” Afterschool Coordinator Nikki Estrada reflects on the challenge to eat more leafy greens. “For me, the key is going to be not to go too big,” she says. “Just do it a little at a time.”

At the end of the workshop, Marek gives the teachers an impromptu trivia quiz about what’s been covered in the last two hours, and as a reward, he offers the leftover veggies and groceries used in the cooking demo. They answer the questions handily, and as they claim their bounty, it’s clear that the teachers are leaving with more than bags of free produce. Marek says he guarantees that the inspiration gained will benefit their students, too. “We know that teachers are mentors to kids seven to eight hours a day—well beyond their regular lesson plans,” he says. “They’re not just teaching them reading, writing, math and science. They’re teaching them how to be whole, healthy human beings.”

By Anne Marie Hampshire • Photography by Kelly Stevens

 

Healthy Food Service Program

Teachers aren’t the only lucky recipients of these free nutrition/cooking classes. In 2017, Whole Kids Foundation partnered with AISD to offer a similar program to more than 600 AISD food-service managers and workers—teaching many of the same principles as the Healthy Teachers Program but adding relevant food-service-related topics, such as kitchen sanitation methods and how to wash produce. AISD’s recent, almost revolutionary move to get back to scratch cooking can be challenging for many food-service workers, some of whom have worked in the district’s kitchens for 15 or 20 years. “Some of them have seen the change from scratch cooking to processed foods, and [at the time] were told those foods had all the nutrients kids needed,” says Marek. “And now they’re being told that the processed foods aren’t as good for you.”

These classes are a way to clear up the confusion, and also to reignite pride in the food-service profession. “When they make lasagna from scratch from a recipe AISD Chef Louis [Ortiz] gave them, they can be proud of it,” says Marek. “The definition of a chef is someone who prepares food for a living. Every single one of the food-service workers is a chef.”

 

For more information about the Healthy Teachers Program, visit wholekidsfoundation.org