Chefs in Schools program aims to squash hunger by bringing healthy cooking to the cafeteria

  • Chef Sam Icklan marks up a whiteboard to let students know what's cooking at Greenfield High School Wednesday afternoon. Recorder Staff/Tom Relihan

  • Chef Sam Icklan prepares cider-glazed butternut squash during the Chefs in Schools program at Greenfield High School Wednesday afternoon. Recorder Staff/Tom Relihan

  • Chef Sam Icklan passes out samples of cider-glazed butternut squash at Greenfield High School Wednesday afternoon. Recorder Staff/Tom Relihan

Recorder Staff
Saturday, September 24, 2016

GREENFIELD — “Yo, this stuff is good!” proclaimed Greenfield High School junior Avias Politis, sinking his fork into another piece of cider-glazed butternut squash Wednesday afternoon.

Not far away, groups of students peel off from the lunch line and wander over to a small table, where Chef Sam Icklan of Project Bread spoons the brown-and-orange cubes into plastic sampling cups.

“Can I try some?” asks one student.

“Sure can!’ replies Icklan, passing him a sample.

Icklan spent Wednesday morning slaving over a hot stove in the high school’s kitchen to prepare the dish, which was provided free to students at lunch time and will be incorporated into the lunch menu next week. Each week, he’ll be sampling a new dish on Wednesdays at the high school and Thursdays at Greenfield Middle School as part of the Chefs In Schools program.

It’s funded through a collaboration between the federal Agriculture, Health and Human Services and Education departments, Icklan said.

Icklan said Chefs In Schools, which is new to Greenfield this year, has been run by Project Bread, a statewide hunger relief non-profit, for about 10 years. Last year was the first time it was able to expand to western Massachusetts, in Pittsfield and the Gill-Montague Regional School District.

The program started in Boston schools as a way to get into schools and improve the quality of food offered for lunch and thus fight hunger.

“When you think about school lunch, it can be a huge tool to combat hunger when the kids are relying on it for nutrition and meals,” Icklan said. “You want it to be the best it can be.”

About 40 percent of Greenfield students are from economically disadvantaged homes and qualify for subsidized meals at school.

Icklan said new regulations have seen many school cafeterias ditch the deep fryer in favor of scratch-cooking. “We’re trying to help support cafeteria staff as they return to scratch cooking and implement these new guidelines.”

That, and it exposes students to different, healthier foods than some may be accustomed to, with the hopes they’ll opt for more of that at home and later in life.

“Maybe they love it, now they know and they’ll see it next week and go for it,” Icklan said. “It’s all so they’ll be drawn to more fruits and vegetables. Greenfield has a lot of farm-to-school stuff, and this is a new way of looking at the product that’s available.”

Icklan, a Northampton resident, said he got involved with the program so that he could use his cooking skills and education in food systems to help children, especially those from low-income families.

“When you can feed them in the schools, that frees up resources at home,” he said.

That’s a connection to his craft that he said he just didn’t feel in the restaurant industry.

“To get in there and eat, you have to have the means,” he said. “I’ve always loved working with kids, and I missed that in the restaurants. It’s a good way to get connected with the community.”

“School lunch isn’t going to solve hunger, but these are all different parts of a larger puzzle you can pull together and hopefully create a reliable resource for healthy food, for people who need it the most,” he said.

The program will run year-long, he said, with a new recipe each week.

You can reach Tom Relihan at:
413-772-0261, ext. 264
or trelihan@recorder.com
On Twitter, @RecorderTom