Food for Thought

Schoollunch

A 2018 labor status study of Orleans Parish residents over age 16 found 45% of New Orleanians are either unemployed, not in the labor force, or retired.

Can nutritious school meals lift New Orleans from food insecurity to a healthier, safer, wealthier position? A local chef thinks so.

Executive Chef Nathanial Zimet is thinking about the legacy he wants to leave. His rise in the local culinary scene started in 2006 with Que Crawl, a barbecue food truck that became a favorite caterer of the local film industry. Thirteen years ago, he opened contemporary Southern restaurant Boucherie, followed by Bourrée, a Cajun smokehouse specializing in boudin and chicken wings. For the past five years, he’s has also been preparing highly nutritious school breakfasts and lunches for a handful of Uptown schools. He started at Ecole Bilingue de la Nouvelle-Orléans and is now providing upward of 350 meals daily at St. George’s and St Andrew’s.

With two restaurant locations and two schools’ food programs in hand, he’s achieved a level of success with which he’s pleased. But the North Carolina native has lived in and fallen in love with New Orleans and wants to make a revolutionary contribution to the city’s future. He’s cooking up a plan to make his current program scalable so he can reach his goal of working with the city’s public schools to provide the nutrition kids need to grow and learn. His thought is that if students across the city are properly fed, their health will improve, causing better learning and behavioral outcomes in school which over the long term will lead to a generational improvement of the city’s health and educational profile by increasing opportunity, decreasing crime, and lifting the city’s overall economic outlook. 

“I’ve had Boucherie since ’08. As I get older, I started to think about what kind of legacy I would like to leave,” Zimet said. “I really think that the school lunch program is where I land.”

Poverty in New Orleans

Poverty has been a generational issue in New Orleans that feeds cyclical health, educational, crime, and economic development challenges. For decades, political leaders and community organizers at the city and state level have tried to address the problems the region faces with seemingly little to no success.  

According to the Louisiana Association of United Ways, in 2018, the latest report available, Orleans Parish has a median household income of $38,423, nearly $10,000 lower than the state average of $47,905. The association says 57% of Orleans Parish’s 155,104 households are classified as living in poverty (24%) or are classified as “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed” (ALICE) (33%) who earn more than the Federal Poverty Level, but less than the basic cost of household essentials, including housing, childcare, food, transportation, health care, and a basic smartphone plan. A 2018 labor status study of residents over age 16 by the American Community Survey and the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found 47% of New Orleanians work 35 or more hours per week in salaried (22%) or hourly (23%) jobs, 11% work salaried (3%) or hourly (8%) part-time jobs, and an astonishing 45% are either unemployed (5%), not in the labor force (26%), or retired (14%).

Toss in the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic with many in the local tourism and service industries losing jobs and the economic outlook for the city appears dim for those who can least afford it. 

Confronting the Issue

For a city world-renowned for its culinary offerings, several New Orleans neighborhoods are, unfortunately, home to food deserts, defined by the USDA as any low-income area that has at least 500 residents and no grocery store within one mile. With roughly 25 percent of residents lacking transportation, according to an analysis by the Data Center, a research group in New Orleans, and people getting hit with unemployment, lost wages during the pandemic, and recent inflation in prices, food insecurity is a growing concern in the city. Because residents of food deserts often have to rely on processed and fast foods, which are high in fat and sugar, they are more likely to develop health and quality of life issues including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, according to the USDA.

For many low-income students, the meals they get at school are the most nutritionally balanced they eat. According to the Pew Research Center, more than 30 million students—about 3 in 5 schoolkids—participate daily in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Created by Congress in 1946, the NSLP helps pay for 5 billion healthy lunches served each year in 95 percent of public schools and thousands of non-profit private schools and residential child-care institutions. The School Breakfast Program (SBP), established 20 years later, provides morning meals to about 14 million children, a number that is steadily rising. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 called for the USDA to set specific calorie limits to ensure age-appropriate meals for grades K-5, 6-8, and 9-12 and update nutrition standards for school lunches and breakfasts to ensure that all students are offered more fruits, green vegetables, beans, lean proteins, and whole grain-rich items, and that foods and drinks on campus do not have excess saturated and trans fats, sugar, and sodium.

From the start of the pandemic through the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year, New Orleans Public Schools and it partner schools were able to provide 1.4 million meals to students and their families, said Taslin Alfonzo, New Orleans Public Schools’ Director of Media Relations. But there is concern that those benefits have been missed with students either forced from campus or by student absenteeism during the pandemic. In January, “The Lens,” a nonprofit, nonpartisan public-interest news website, reported that as many as 9,000 New Orleans Public Schools students, roughly 20% of pre-pandemic enrollment, were considered “chronically absent” this school year, according to district officials.

 


Orleans Parish Labor Statistics

22% 

Full-Time, Salary

23% 

Full-Time, Hourly

8%

Part-Time, Hourly  

3%

Part-Time, Salary  

5%

Unemployed  

26%

Not in Labor Force

14%

Retired  

Note: Full-time represents a minimum of 35 hours per week at one or more jobs for 48 weeks per year. Figures based on residents 16 and older.

Sources: American Community Survey, 2018; Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, 2018

Nutrition’s Importance

Today’s school lunches and growing breakfast offerings are aimed powering young minds and bodies to their full potential. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), students who eat before school have higher grades and standardized test scores, reduced absenteeism, improved cognitive performance and graduation rates, while those who skip breakfast show decreased alertness, attention, memory, processing of complex visual displays, and problem solving, as well as increased dropout rates and behavioral problems.

“Research shows good nutrition helps students learn,” Alfonzo said. “Improvements in nutrition can help make students healthier, and they’re more likely to have fewer absences, less behavior disruptions, and attend class more frequently. Studies (also) show that malnutrition leads to behavior problems, and that sugar has a negative impact on child behavior. Ultimately, healthy meals can lead to higher attendance, fewer behavior interruptions, and create a better learning environment for each student in a class.”

While the trend among several archdiocesan, parochial, and private schools is to allow outside vendors to provide meals, the city’s public schools have traditional cafeterias. 

“Our child nutrition staff cooks all the meals within each school’s cafeterias,” Alfonzo said. “Our students are provided with nutritionally balanced hot meals daily.”

Molly Kimball, a registered dietitian and founder of Ochsner Eat Fit, a nonprofit initiative that collaborates with local restaurants and chefs to develop and feature menu items that are nutritious and delicious, said how we fuel our bodies has immediate and long-term impacts on mental and physical performance.

“There’s research that shows kids who eat a healthy breakfast score better on tests than those who don’t. And I think you could extrapolate it. It’s not just breakfast. It would also be lunch and snacks and things like that,” she said. “We know that when we fuel ourselves well, our attention span is stronger, our focus is stronger. We tend to get sick less often. There are fewer absentee days.”

Kimball said school lunch and breakfast programs are great opportunities to expose kids to new foods – including whole grains and different types of proteins and vegetables – or new ways of preparing foods they thought they disliked. Think nuked, canned, mushy asparagus with a pungent odor versus fresh, seasoned and grilled asparagus that is crispy and flavorful.

“Some of these kids are like, wait, this is like a whole different beast I’ve been missing! Hang on,” she said. 

Schools are in a unique position to teach students about and practice healthy eating behaviors. She said getting children to eating better at a younger age will provide long-term benefits and reduce the risk of developing a litany of costly health conditions in adulthood including high blood pressure, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, cancer, osteoporosis, iron deficiency, and dental cavities.

 

It’s counter-productive to make food that is great, but the kids just won’t eat it, you know? My goal is to see what I can get away with. How close to healthy, healthy, healthy can it be while still being appealing to the kids?

 


National School Breakfast & Lunch Participation

Pre-pandemic, each day, more than 90,000 schools served breakfast to 14.77 million students as part of the School Breakfast Program (SBP) and 100,000 schools participated in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) which provided fed 29.6 million students. 

Breakfast

11.8 million

Free Breakfasts

0.74 million 

Reduced Price (student pays $0.30)

2.23 million 

Full Price

2.45 billion

Breakfasts are Served Annually

Lunch

20.1 million 

Free Lunches

1.7 million Reduced Price

(student pays $0.40)

7.7 million

Full Price

4.9 billion

Lunches are Served Annually

Source: USDA FY 2019 data

Zimet’s Reckoning

Zimet and Kimball have a similar philosophy on eating right, especially with youngsters. Neither is too concerned with feeding them like adults on a strict diet. They would rather focus on adding healthy options and squeezing out the junk where possible. He says his interest in packing nutrients into his food came when his daughter suddenly shifted from eating anything put in front of her to becoming very picky.

“There’s no reason to not like what you’re eating. It’s a compromise, like a marriage,” he said. “Kids are not adults looking to be healthy and lean. They can be picky. So, I like to prepare things that they are familiar with, that they like. They’re burning calories, just growing, learning, and through play. The trick is to push more nutritious foods into their diet and hide them.

“It’s counter-productive to make food that is great, but the kids just won’t eat it, you know? My goal is to see what I can get away with. How close to healthy, healthy, healthy can it be while still being appealing to the kids? I hope to make kind of classic, simple things that are full of nutritional value.”

To achieve his goal, he serves traditional kid favorites, like pizza and macaroni and cheese, but not something that comes from a box.

“It’s okay for the kids to have pasta because the carbs are important and they’re going to burn them. When we make the macaroni and cheese, it’s a vessel to give them vegetables. We roast cauliflower and carrots and squash, depending on what time of the year it is, and puree all that into our cheese sauce so that you can’t see it.”

His pizza is made with French bread from Dong Phuong Restaurant & Bakery, topped with a hand-made red sauce, meats, and whole milk cheese.

“We kind of take everything that we have and put it in the red sauce,” he said. “It’s amazing the amount of vegetables you can grind into the sauce, and the kids love it because it’s fricking tomato sauce on pizza with cheese.

“The pizza is a great example of compromising. Is it the healthiest bread? No, man. It’s fricking poor boy bread, right? But it’s local and good and combined with the other ingredients, it is a healthy option. I mean, if you’re going to vilify somebody for having Dong Phuong bread, I think there’s a whole lot of people that can be vilified. You know what I mean?”

For dessert, he offers things like applesauce cake and strawberries with fresh, hand-made whipped cream.

“They’re good, the kids enjoy them, and it’s not like we’re popping a miracle whip or some crap like that.”

Additionally, he says he doesn’t offer boiled vegetables.

“I don’t think that’s an enjoyable thing,” he said. “We roast vegetables and season them to taste like we would want to eat. To me, that is the test, am I willing to eat it?

“Hopefully this is an opportunity for kids to appreciate what food can taste like, open them up a little bit, expand their pallet, and get them on the road to healthier eating. That’s the goal.”

 

We kind of take everything that we have and put it in the red sauce. It’s amazing the amount of vegetables you can grind into the sauce, and the kids love it because it’s fricking tomato sauce on pizza with cheese.

Mikey Likes It

Head of St. George’s School Joseph Kreutziger said their previous food vendor was keen on pleasing the students based on what they like – “pizza, pasta, burgers and things like that” – which were popular but didn’t necessarily have the high nutritional quality students need to succeed. 

“If you’re in education and you’re not paying attention to nutrition, then you’re just not doing your job. That’s the bottom line,” Kreutziger said. “That’s why we turned to Chef Nate. The committee who interviewed Nate and tasted and sampled his food were blown away not just with the taste and the quality of the food, but its nutritional profile. Like his macaroni and cheese, you might just think, okay, that’s carbohydrates and some dairy, but Nate’s a master at embedding vegetables and other quality ingredients in his sauces. And the kids just love the taste of his mac and cheese and other crowd pleasers, but they’re also getting that pureed vegetable component that makes it a really good balanced, nutritional diet.”

Zimet says he loves to hear from students and parents who have been surprised by his offerings.

“Overall, the kids love it,” he said. “The numbers have grown every year. It’s never lowered. It’s always grown. The parents that I interact with, they’re really excited about it. It’s great to hear that a child likes something that I’ve made that they’ve previously avoided.  And so that’s, to me, the big win.” 

 


Percentage of metropolitan New Orleans children enrolled in public schools that are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

61% 

Jefferson

66% 

Orleans

62% 

Plaquemines

62% 

St. Bernard

52% 

St. Charles

45% 

St. James

60% 

St. John the Baptist

45% 

St. Tammany

49% 

Tangipahoa

64% 

Washington

Source: The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) 2021 County Health Rankings

Expanding Economics 

Zimet realizes he’s currently cooking for tony private schools whose students have more than likely enjoyed a healthier lifestyle growing up compared to underprivileged children their same age. 

According to Teach New Orleans, an online resource that connects educators with public schools in the city, more than 49,000 students attend one of 86 New Orleans public schools (83 of which are charter schools) in the 2019-2020 school year. Of that figure, 82% are considered economically disadvantaged.

“It’s one thing to make all of this healthy food for kids that can afford it,” he said. “It’s another thing being able to push that into places where the only meals these cats are having are the meals they’re having at school, which is really terrifying to think about. So public schools, when I can kind of push over into that then I can really hopefully make a big difference.”

Zimet admits his cooking is without question more expensive to prepare compared to prepacked, preservative-ladened canned and frozen foods.

“What we’re looking at right now is about six bucks a meal, and six bucks a plate is not bad.”

He’s found ways to cut costs while keeping his offerings at the highest quality.

“Canned vegetables are pretty inexpensive, right? They’re pretty inexpensive and pretty noticeably gross. But if you process fresh fruits and vegetables, cut it yourself, you’re almost at can price. I mean, you’re not completely there, but the quality is night and day. And if I need to hire, it’s providing jobs for people. I’d rather put the money into labor than into crap. It seems like a win-win.”

Additionally, the chef says there are a lot of incentive programs aimed at offsetting costs to ensure American students receive the best nutrition possible. 

“There’s a lot of grant programs out there for growing your own vegetables or using locally grown vegetables for public schools and then being subsidized by the government and other groups. I think there’s a lot of potential.”

 

“It’s one thing to make all of this healthy food for kids that can afford it,” he said. “It’s another thing is really being able to push that into places where the only meals these cats are having are the meals they’re having at school, which is really terrifying to think about.”

A Theory Worth Exploring

Catalyzing change in New Orleans can be a daunting task, but educators and health experts say ensuring our youngest generation is eating nutritious meals could be the first step to seeing improvement in the region’s quality of life.

“We’re in one of the food capitals of the world in terms of chefs like Nate and others who are ready and available to serve some of the best food in the country. Not just by taste, but by nutrition,” Kreutziger said. “Chef Nate wants to scale up this operation so that we provide quality and nutritional value to all of our population across the city. I think the premise is solid because this is foundational. It’s foundational to everything else that we, as educators, want to achieve. In terms of cognitive performance, from the range of test scores to thinking better and being more active as learners and participants in class, there’s no stronger correlation to performance than nutrition. If you start with nutrition and the basics of what provides your best cognitive result, behavioral outcomes are better in the classroom when students are well fed and well rested, and so start there and you build from there to provide what our kids need across the city.”

Alfonzo also lauded the idea.

“NOLA Public Schools believes in proper nutrition, as Mr. Zimet does, and we know what a difference it can make in a child’s life when it comes to learning and staying in school,” she said. “We support him and anyone who is looking to improve the wellbeing of our city’s youth and their success.”

Zimet is energized by the thought that he could help lead a renaissance in New Orleans.

“I can tell that I’m doing the right thing because I feel good about it,” he said. “The goal is to expand into public schools as much as possible. We’re currently in the private school sector, but once that private school sector can push us into the public schools, where the kids really need it, that will be awesome. That’s the kind of legacy I hope to leave.”