Local restaurateur Marc Vetri's new school lunch initiative is getting good reviews and could soon be expanded.
Earlier this year, Vetri, the proprietor of Osteria, Vetri, and Amis, took over management of the school lunch program at the People for People Charter School on North Broad Street. The initiative replaces the cafeteria line with family-style service where an adult sits at each table, and a young table captain, wearing a special chef's smock, brings the food to each table. Before each meal, the chef announces the menu.
"Many studies show that there are many positive benefits from sitting together at meal time. Lunch is now part of the curriculum. It is not free time," said Vetri, who was named "Best Chef Mid-Atlantic" by the James Beard Foundation.
Chef Tia McDonald and three other staff members from the Vetri Family Foundation arrive at 6:30 a.m. to prepare the food. Andre C. Williams, director of operations for the school, boasted about yesterday's menu of beef lasagna, which was made with three cheeses, tomato sauce, and ground beef, green salad with carrots, handmade pear crisp, and skim or 1 percent milk.
"We used to have rectangular tables with benches, platters, plastic plates and silverware, and food made from frozen food," Williams said. "Now we have tables, chairs, real silverware, and fresh food except for the tomatoes in the lasagna. Much of the food is handmade. When we have steak and brisket, the students go home and brag about it to their parents."
He believes the change in the menu fosters better behavior in the classroom after lunch, a typically rowdy time during the school day.
Perhaps, there is no better indicator of the success of the program than the vote of confidence given by the students.
Tymier, 9, said, "I feel like I am eating in a restaurant."
Shuaib, 8, said, "We have no more nasty ingredients."
More schools to come?
The national discussion on school lunches, childhood obesity, and a request for help in planning menus by the founder of the ESF Dream Camps Michael Rouse was a catalyst for the creation of the Eatiquette program by Vetri and his partner Jeff Benjamin.
"After we took over the lunches at the ESF Dream Camps, the number of children misbehaving kids after lunch dropped from an average of 20 to two or three," said Vetri. "The success of our camp experiment convinces us to expand the program to schools."
Vetri is in talks with the city to expand the program to other city schools, although nothing is definite.
"Our options are limitless," Vetri said. "We want to be onsite at other schools. While we can't make lunch at every school, we can go in and teach them our menus and our program."