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‘Eat Up’: Bringing Kitchens Into Boston Public School Cafeterias

By Lisa Mullins

More than 20 million students across America rely on school lunches that are reduced cost or free.

Many of those lunches are trucked into the schools from corporate vendors. They fit the nutritional guidelines, but many kids say they don’t look good or taste good.

A movement in Boston Public Schools is bringing schools back to the days when kids ate meals cooked in the school’s own kitchen. Those lunches are healthy, they meet federal guidelines and don’t cost any more than the trucked-in meals.

The program has drawn interest from other cities across the country, including Milwaukee and Washington, D.C.

Jennie Hall, the cafeteria manager at East Boston High School, says it was easier to run the school lunch program when workers just reheated prepackaged food. But she says it’s not about the job being easier.

“It’s about seeing the kids enjoy what they’re eating because when you have a packaged lunch, they’re kind of telling you, ‘This is what you have to eat,’ ” she says. “So now they get to pick what they … want instead of being told.”

And Hall says when they have healthy options, kids will choose them. She says her students eat at the two salad bars in the cafeteria.

Filmmaker Fiona Turner spent a year following how an entrenched Boston school system came to embrace a new way of serving kids healthy meals. The documentary she produced is called “Eat Up.”

Turner says she’s convinced that education begins with food.

“Food is absolutely crucial to the well-being of every single child,” she says. “And when they’re eating well, they’re able to take instruction. There is much less disturbances and behavioral problems.”

Hall says cooking fresh food in the cafeteria was difficult at first, and some of her staff members quit. The advice she would give other school cafeteria workers who are reluctant to embrace the change is to stick with it.

“Hang in there. Get your staff together. Work together as a team. It’s all for the children,” Hall says. “And that’s who we’re there for, for the children.”