Chef Charleen Badman, who dazzles grownups at her Scottsdale restaurant, last year expanded her wizardry to include younger, more pedestrian diners. The five-time James Beard Award-nominated chef and owner of FnB began working to dress up school lunches.
Her focus for the cafeteria remains the same as for her restaurant: providing fresh, local, flavorful foods — but this time for kids, from kindergarten through high school. Badman is leading chefs, farmers and community food advocates in Blue Watermelon, a year-old grassroots movement aiming to wean kids off lunches that are high in sugar and heart-clogging fat and low in disease-fighting nutrients.
“It’s all about teaching kids to eat better, make better choices and learn the importance of eating clean, healthy food,” Badman explains. “I wish someone had taught me the same when I was young.”
Blue Watermelon’s motto is “A healthy tray every day,” and the group tackles unhealthy school lunches from multiple angles. First, its chefs spend time in classrooms teaching students how to eat to feel better, learn more easily and play harder.
“I love chips as much as anyone, but I know that it’s important to learn to love what comes from the garden,” Badman says.
Kids who might shrug off the same “healthy eating” messages from parents tend to listen to chefs — once blue-collar professionals who have been elevated by food TV to rock-star status.
“The kids really trust chefs and listen to what we have to say. It’s amazing the different foods we get them to try, and to like,” says Danielle Leoni, chef and owner of Breadfruit in downtown Phoenix.
Logan nuts, spiny melons and jackfruit? Students have tasted and embraced all three, Leoni says.
To reinforce its mission, Blue Watermelon also provides resources and encouragement to educators and parents. Its chefs — including local talents Chris Bianco, Tracy Dempsey, Justin Beckett, Aaron Chamberlin, Sasha Levine, Gio Osso and Sasha Raj — also are helping food service workers rejigger menus to include more vegetables, fruits and whole grains without breaking razor-tight food budgets.
“Chefs always are faced with balancing flavor and cost. It’s not always easy to cook from scratch and use quality ingredients, but it’s possible, and it’s worth working toward,” says Butch Raphael, executive chef at Phoenix Children’s Hospital and another Blue Watermelon chef who is concerned about the younger generation’s health.
“This is more than just a way to get kids interested in different foods,” Raphael says. “It’s our way of helping them lead healthier lives. It all begins in childhood.”
With one out of every three children overweight or obese and 31 million eating lunches daily in school cafeterias, these improvements are critical to improving health. For many kids, the lion’s share of daily food intake comes from school, according to public health officials.
“We can’t tackle the entire country, but we can have an impact in our own community,” Badman says. “We can make a difference one kid, one school at a time.”
Blue Watermelon, which operates under the umbrella of the Phoenix chapter of Slow Food, dovetails a national push launched in 2010 by First Lady Michelle Obama to revamp the nation’s school lunch program. Called Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids, the program’s goal is to increase servings of vegetables, fruits and whole grains in school lunches, serve healthy portions, remove dangerous trans fats and limit salt.
According to Blue Watermelon chefs, nearly all schools are meeting the updated nutrition standards, but there is more work to do to ensure all kids in Arizona have access to healthy, appealing food. One key to meeting this goal is encouraging schools to include school gardens in the curriculum.
“School gardens tend not to work if they are just a hobby, so we are working with teachers to find ways to make them a permanent part of campus. There’s no better way to get kids to eat vegetables than to learn how to grow them,” Badman says. And, in Arizona, the harvest season coincides perfectly with the school year.
So far, school officials have embraced the chef-driven movement.
“The teachers get that Blue Watermelon is not about selling food, but rather about cultivating an upcoming generation. We are forging new connections between people and food,” Leoni says. “And we are making lunch a little better day by day.”
Learn more: slowfoodphoenix.org/schoolwork