New York Times  [Printer-friendly version]
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

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

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

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