Bright Spot: New Haven Public Schools, Connecticut

Photo (Chris Volpe): Chef Tim Cipriano talks with a NHPS student at a community garden about how "one little tomato can change a whole generation of kids."

New Haven Public Schools (NHPS) educates and feeds approximately 20,000 students in 46 schools. Of those students, 80% qualify for free and reduced student meals.  Executive Director of Food Services Tim Cipriano, recently named by FoodService Director as one of their "Influential 20," is one of our nation's leaders in positive school food change.  NHPS has received 40 salad bar equipment grants from F3's Let's Move Salad Bars to Schools Program, and Chef Tim is a big fan of The Lunch Box.
 
Chef Tim started his career in the kitchen as a child, but who wouldn’t with a great grandmother nicknamed “Nana Noodles”?  Tim spent many years working in restaurants before he started his own family, and at that pivotal point in his life he made the move to school food. He came to New Haven School already a believer in the work being done by the District Wellness Committee and the progressive nutrition program instituted by the mayor and lead school administration. Since he has taken the helm of Food Services at NHPS, Chef Tim has transitioned the nutrition focus to locally-sourced, fresh, whole food.

"The biggest impact we have had on the children is by incorporating salad bars into our menus to increase access to fresh vegetables, many from local farms," said Chef Tim. It hasn't been easy. "The biggest obstacles we face revolve around the lack of funding to serve a truly healthy meal," he continued. "We are working to overcome this obstacle by incorporating more plant-based proteins in place of meat-based proteins thus reducing the food cost of the item."

Chef Tim cites The Lunch Box as a tool that has helped him to change the way school children eat in New Haven.  He says, "The Lunch Box has been a strong partner in our campaign to serve children real food.  We utilize the Lunch Box for training materials and resources instead of trying to reinvent the wheel."

Chef Tim's solutions are paying off.  He often sits with students during lunch time, and many of them thank him for getting salad bars into their schools.  His most rewarding moments, however, are when he can convince children to taste a vegetable they've never eaten before.  "The best is when I see their expression when they finally taste it," said Chef Tim. "It is not always positive but the expression itself is worth a million bucks to me!"

Tim's efforts extend beyond the school district.  He has worked with Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro to help create the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, and he's worked with the White House to implement the Chefs Move to Schools Campaign. A defining moment in his career came when he saw a student putting his lunch in his backpack. When Chef Tim asked the boy why, the child responded that he wasn't saving it to eat later; it was so his sister could eat dinner that night. "That changed my life and vision for school food," shared Chef Tim. "From that moment on I decided to dedicate much of my free time to work with Share Our Strength to help put an end to childhood hunger and to serve more real food daily because these meals often are, in some cases, the only nutritious meal of the day!"

Chef Tim's emphasis on real food is evident. Among other accomplishments, NHPS can boast that the pastas, breads and rice that students eat are always whole grain; chicken nuggets and other breaded, highly-processed proteins have been replaced by chicken roasted "on the bone"; 100% of their schools have salad bars and all serve fresh vegetables prepared from scratch; and, in 2010, over 140,000 pounds of produce were purchased from local farms.

While it wasn't easy or quick (Chef Tim emphasizes baby steps), these changes are possible in all school districts with strong leaders and a little help from The Lunch Box.  "The best way to create positive change is to identify the champion in the school or school district," he said.  "This champion will be your vehicle to partner with to make the most changes and could be the food service director, a teacher or even a student. The Lunch Box offers many resources needed to help facilitate these changes and to get the job begun."

Do you have a success story at your school that you would like to share?  Let us know by contacting Michele Battiste at Michele@foodfamilyfarming.org.