Deerfield Academy chef, food director gets national award
Lauded for healthy, innovative meals
DEERFIELD — In the kitchen at Deerfield Academy, a team of culinary experts work to develop the 1,800 meals a week that the private co-educational boarding school’s 600-plus students eat.
From sweet potatoes to kale to quinoa burgers, Deerfield Academy students have their pick from a variety of healthy meals.
Chef Michael McCarthy, director of food services, is receiving one of two national Golden Carrot awards for his innovative and healthy school menus. In addition, he was awarded a $2,500 grand prize to support the academy dining program. He tied for the grand prize with a New York school, the Active Learning Elementary School.
Since 2004, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a national nonprofit with more than 10,000 doctor members, awards the Golden Carrot Awards to recognize food service teams doing work to improve the healthfulness of school lunches. The nonprofit looks for programs that encourage students to eat fresh fruits, vegetables and plant-based entrees.
Deerfield Academy does just that, serving a variety of grains, leafy greens, fresh fruits and plant-based proteins such as tofu, tempeh and hummus.
Director of nutrition education for the Physicians Committee Susan Levin said each year, the contest officials look at dozens of applications from across the country. They look for schools with creative ideas for offering healthy options for kids and inspiring them to choose the healthy meals.
“Deerfield was at the top in terms of how creative they are with their options,” Levin said. “We see schools offer healthy options and their kids don’t choose the food. It’s about being more creative and putting the effort in to get kids to choose the healthy food.”
McCarthy has worked at Deerfield for 15 years after working in several restaurants, catering businesses and weddings. The Milford native grew up in the restaurant business with his maternal grandparents running a tavern in his hometown and his father, a school teacher, serving at a Cape Cod bar during the summer break.
“I want food to be healthy, but I want the students to enjoy it,” McCarthy said. “From the food we serve now, we’re laying the groundwork for students’ diets for the rest of their lives. We feel the responsibility to teach in the classroom and the dining hall.”
For the past two years, McCarthy and his 15-member dining services staff have worked to revolutionize meals at Deerfield Academy with healthier options.
It started last spring when a 2012 graduate began volunteering as a student in the kitchens trying to increase and enhance vegetarian servings at the school. The current New York University student nominated McCarthy for this year’s award.
A central piece to the boarding school’s meals is a theory developed by Walter Willet, one of the most influential voices on healthy eating. He is currently chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. Willet developed the concept of a healthy eating plate, in which one half of the plate is filled with vegetables and fruits, a quarter is covered with lean protein and another quarter is whole grains.
McCarthy now uses the healthy eating plate model.
McCarthy is transforming the school meals step by step. In concert with the menu changes is an emphasis in the classroom about healthy eating. Teachers lead discussions about sustainability and students receive daily text messages that promote new menu items, including Moroccan curry and vegetarian maple stew.
“We can’t drastically change it,” McCarthy said. “We do it in baby steps. We’re not trying to completely change everything. People will accept it more if you gradually change it.”
The school is trying to make eating healthy the “cool thing” to do, McCarthy said. If students see their peers choosing sweet potatoes and kale over less healthy options, they may follow suit.
Some of the changes McCarthy has done is make small changes to recipes to make them more healthy. For many meals, he has substituted whole grain wheat for processed white flour.
Deerfield Academy Dining Services gets its food from a variety of local and regional vendors, including apples from Clarkdale Fruit Farm in Deerfield.
The dining service staff, which includes the food production manager, assistant director, baker, salad bar staffer, purchasing manger and McCarthy develop the school’s menu on a five-week cycle.
“Everyone has input,” McCarthy said. “We’re always on the lookout for new ideas. We are actively analyzing everything we make and do.”
The dining staff tests each meal on a small scale with a four-person serving size. Recipes are always evolving, as well. McCarthy said he asks cooks how recipes worked and how students reacted to the meal. The dining staff also talks to students about the meals.
The creative menu helps keep the interest of students, who rely on 20 meals a week from the school.
“We want to keep them excited. Food, especially in a boarding school, is one of the most important things. We’re their single source of nutrients,” McCarthy said.