New York Times, September 9, 2005


[Rachel's introduction: "Mr. Canada and his staff hope that the Promise Academy will prove the importance of a serious school food program, much as data from the national Head Start program was used to prove the effectiveness of early education and support for children."]

By Kim Severson

Ebony Richards, a confirmed hamburger and Tater Tots girl, knows the rules of the lunch line at her school, the Promise Academy in Harlem.

When confronted with whole-wheat penne covered with sauteed peppers and local squash, she does not blurt out "That's nasty." If she does, she goes to the end of the line.

Although seconds on main courses are not allowed -- someone has to show children what a reasonable portion is -- Ebony can fill her tray with a dozen helpings of vegetables or bowls of Romaine lettuce from the salad bar. Any time in the school day, she can wander into the cafeteria for a New York apple.

Ebony, 12, had never seen Swiss chard until a month ago. She ate three helpings. "I was like, 'I don't want to eat that," " she said of her first few months of meals at the Promise Academy. "But I had to, because there was nothing else. Then it was like, 'This is good." "

Now she demands that her father, Darryl Richards, pick up chard at the makeshift farmers' market held once a month in the school cafeteria. They may even take one of the school's cooking classes together.

As this school year begins, it is a rare administrator who is not reconsidering at least some aspect of lunch, as a way to confront increasing obesity and poor eating habits. Some steps are as simple as shutting off soda machines. Others involve writing new, comprehensive nutrition policies.

But perhaps no school is taking a more wide-ranging approach in a more hard-pressed area than the Promise Academy, a charter school at 125th Street and Madison Avenue where food is as important as homework. Last year, officials took control of the students' diets, dictating a regimen of unprocessed, regionally grown food both at school and, as much as possible, at home.

Experts see the program as a Petri dish in which the effects of good food and exercise on students' health and school performance can be measured and, perhaps, eventually replicated.

"The Promise Academy model is probably the most intensive anybody is working with," said Janet Poppendieck, a professor of sociology at Hunter College who is working on a book about school food for the University of California Press.

Almost 90 percent of the students at the school come from families poor enough to qualify for free government lunches, and 44 percent are overweight. Most had never tasted a fresh raspberry or eaten a peach that wasn't canned in sugar syrup before they picked up a cafeteria tray at the school.

"Our challenge is to create an environment where young people actually eat healthy and learn to do it for the rest of their lives," said Geoffrey Canada, the teacher and author from the South Bronx who developed the Promise Academy. Mr. Canada created his school kitchen as part of the larger Harlem Children's Zone, an assault on poverty being watched by social service experts and policy makers across the country.

Promise was one of nine charter schools opened in the city last year. The Bloomberg administration has pledged to open 50 such schools, including 15 that are opening for this school year.

Mr. Canada, who has a master's in education from Harvard, drew a circle around a 60-block area in central Harlem to create the children's zone, a tight web of social, health and educational programs that start with a "baby college" for new parents and will end, he hopes, with the well-fed collegebound graduates of the Promise Academy.

The school has longer hours than most public schools and runs through most of the summer because the founders believe that its students need help catching up with those born into better circumstances.

School officials regularly measure the children's weight and fitness along with their academic progress. Mr. Canada and his staff hope that the Promise Academy will prove the importance of a serious school food program, much as data from the national Head Start program was used to prove the effectiveness of early education and support for children.

That will take time. When the Promise Academy opened last year, kindergartners and sixth graders were the only students. This year they are moving up a grade, and another batch of kindergartners and sixth graders is starting. In five years, when every grade level is filled, 1,300 students will be eating two meals and two snacks a day from the Promise Academy kitchen.

"We want the children to get to a point where they're looking forward to that apple, and the parents provide it for them," Mr. Canada said. "Now we say, 'Eat fruits and vegetables," and we have kids who come back and say, 'My moms ain't buying that." "

The team at the school uses strict guidelines, education and a little psychology to change young palates. One key is to teach resistance to marketing come-ons from fast-food and candy manufacturers.

"They've got to hear they're being conned," Mr. Canada said, "or they're not going to be open to this."

Eating at the Promise Academy is about more than just the food. Children learn to respect where it comes from and who serves it, as well as whom they eat with. They must use tongs to pick up their morning bagels. They may not bang their trays down on the cloth- covered cafeteria tables. No one is allowed to toss out whole peaches or to cut in line.

To make it all work, Mr. Canada relies on Andrew Benson, a young chef with a culinary degree from Johnson and Wales University. Mr. Benson, a veteran of three public school cafeterias in Harlem, said he was defeated by the city's school food bureaucracy. (Actual cooking from scratch is done in less than half of the city's 1,356 schools.)

The new kitchen at the academy rivals many in good New York restaurants. Mr. Benson does not use foods like processed cheese and peanut butter from the commodities program, choosing to spend part of his budget on fresher food.

He feeds the children breakfast, lunch and an array of after-school and Saturday snacks at a daily cost of about $5.87 per student. The amount, almost twice what some public schools spend, comes from a mix of government reimbursements and a school budget pumped up by grants and other private donations.

To get things rolling, Mr. Canada first turned to Ann Cooper, the chef who gained a national platform reworking the lunch program at the private Ross School in East Hampton. She helped stock the kitchen, find food purveyors and plan menus. But the Promise Academy program is much less fancy than Ross's, in both food and financing.

The Promise menu and the per-pupil budget are the envy of Jorge Leon Collazo, who was hired last year as the first executive chef of the New York City public schools, in one of several efforts to improve the 860,000 meals that are pumped out each day in the school system.

"I can't put turkey lasagna with fresh zucchini on the menu for all the schools in the city," Mr. Collazo said. "I'd get killed. No one would eat it. If I did something esoteric like that -- esoteric for a public school -- you'd also have to have something like pizza."

Even at the Promise Academy, getting students to embrace healthy eating has been a struggle. At first, they went home complaining that they had not had enough to eat or that the food was terrible, so Mr. Benson brought parents in for a meal.

The food impressed Jacqueline Warner, whose son, Chuck Cherry, 11, used to come home from school complaining that he was hungry. "It's just that he wasn't used to eating healthy portions," she said.

Ms. Warner, 40, has diabetes. She grew up in Harlem, eating what her mother could afford and knew how to cook. Often that meant fried foods, macaroni and cheese and lots of rice and potatoes. She loved it, but attributes her disease, in part, to that diet.

"I'm just glad he has a chance now to know the difference between the food we grew up on," she said, "and the healthy kind of food they serve in this school."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company