Author Archives: Allison Sosna

The Whole Wheat Hope Burger

I used to be very diligent about writing my thoughts down, taking the time to sit and reflect more about my work, about life. This year, stopping has been neglected more and more (as apparent in my timeline of posts with Slow Food) in my life and my work. Now it’s time to catch you and me both up to speed.

The last time I left you it was winter and it was the beginning of a new year, a new glass that was half full. But what that glass was full of was yet to be defined. Three months into the new year I can tell you now what that glass is full of…it’s full of hope. Not to be too cheeky….. but it is.

“There is less processed foods in the kids meals”
“More kids are eating their fruits and vegetables”
“Kids are eating more salad because they see other kids eating salad”
“My kids want to only eat the fruit and veggies at school”
“I see them eating broccoli and dipping it in the ranch you make from scratch”
“They eat the peppers as if they are candy– even the sweet tooth in the class is gobbling them down”

These are just some of the quotes from this year at the new school I have been working in since August. It’s amazing to see so much change since the summer. And indeed the 6-month mark is a big one to analyze a change in behavior.

Kids still feel strongly about not being fond of beans unless in the form of BBQ. They still love their pizza, their hot dogs, and burgers. But now they eat them on a whole-wheat bun, they eat them with real beef from real local cows that eat real grass. They eat real food and that’s what we talk to them about each day. That real food tastes good and it’s made with love; not from a processing plant. Anand makes it or Iris makes it or Tiffany makes it. It’s made by people who use their hands and who put flavor into that burger you’re eating.

That is the best part of what we do at DC Central Kitchen and with schools and with the community. We educate and we give out tools to be healthier. Cooks, chefs, nutritionists, teachers, advocates, instructors, buyers, growers, and transporters, are all invested in giving back to the community and you can too! It’s about baby steps and it starts with a whole-wheat bun stuffed with a patty of HOPE. ☺

How the Grinch didn’t steal school food

I don’t make new years resolutions; I make them everyday. We as a society should be aware of our actions everyday and the effects they have on others… something Congress has lost sight in; something we need to urge them to reconnect with.

This year, people all over the country mobilized to turn out better food for the kids in this country. Chefs worked to demonstrate, teach, and feed thousands of kids not only in DC but also all over the country. Farmers showed students and parents how they grow the food that they eat, truck drivers dropped of local healthy fresh fruits and vegetables to put in their mouths, and logistic coordinators helped facilitate all of the above. Lots of people have made their resolutions to not only themselves but to the kids of this country to get better food to them. To get wholesome food that isn’t processed into the mouths of kids and teach them skills that no longer exist in mainstream America is a task that should be on many resolution lists this year and for many years to come.

Congress may still continue to follow big business lobbyists and monopolies to cut corners (pizza will never be a vegetable) and the health of our next generation but it does not mean we have to give up. It fuels my fire to believe that such rhetoric can occur and that such ignorance exists.

We got this folks; and we’re still doing a great job together.

Here’s to more kids getting real food in 2012. Please join me in fighting childhood obesity and hunger in America. Let me know if you want to help in the fight @chefallisosna on twitter.

Happy and healthy holidays!

Dear Apple Cider, sorry I took you for granted

Apple cider. I took you for granted.

This week at school I handed out some local apple cider (non alcoholic of course) samples that were donated to the kitchen. Being October and all, I thought it would be a nice treat to the students. What I failed to realize was how many kids HAD NEVER HAD APPLE CIDER BEFORE! Many people, and a certain demographic, knows all about apple cider, plans trips around apple cider making and purchasing, and goes gaga over apple cider.

Apple cider, a beverage produced from apples that would not be best consumed raw, is an enjoyable drink; a drink I grew up on, seasonally of course. Many kids don’t know what apple cider is. They can tell you all 100 plus products of the CoCa Cola company but they can’t name a natural, historic, beverage that is made naturally at this time every year since the beginning of time. It’s sad. But, the apple cider glass is still have full here and so despite being shocked, we used it as a golden opportunity to talk to the students during those few breakfast meal periods about apples, seasonal produce, apple cider making, and had them try it. Did everyone like it? No. But, some did, and some walked away liking something new they had never tried before. That’s what cooking is all about, right!?

Happy fall! And happy cider drinking.

KEEP IT REAL! cook something

I need to set higher goals.

In my last post I summarized my time in school food service over the last few years and ended with a goal of meeting the First Lady.

I met her this past Saturday.

Now what?

I’ll tell you what!

Home ec.

Michelle wants to bring it back. Well, kinda sorta.

As I was preparing salad greens with Mrs. Obama at DC Central Kitchen, we spoke about (among many things in the twenty minutes I had with her) the need to educate children. Children are coming to school and being raised in an era where the common utensil is a spork, where the average lunch period is 16 minutes long, and the food is much less satisfying. We need to fix that. We need to bring back the pride associating cooking with keepin it real.

We have, in many senses, lost our way in food. We have a huge grassroots and national movement going on that has forced us to think about where our food comes from, who grew it, and how it got to us. But we now need to take that and bring it to the next step; we need to learn how to cook again. Michelle Obama could not be more right.

It’s not a lot. It’s boiling water, blanching, searing, marinating, grilling. It’s salting food, it’s making a dressing, and it’s maybe what you leave a Sunday afternoon for in your family. No one is asking anyone to be a chef. But food can and will bring people together, so why not start it on Sundays when the family is around? Why not open a cookbook or even watch the Food Network together? Cooking, after all, should be fun, not terrifying.

Let me know your thoughts on cooking with your schedule… What challenges do you face in trying to cook at home? And with your kids? What would YOU need to want to cook more??!

Michelle Obama faces the same challenges you all face when raising children to eat in order to understand the power of food, not just eating healthy. She gets that someone has to make those choices for themselves and she wants to help facilitate that connection….but I guarantee you, she wont be using the words “home economics” when she rolls out that plan.

Dirty Pop…, baby, you can’t stop

Soda was everywhere.

In my last three years working with schools I have never seen such a high rate of soda consumption until this year. And I’m not just talking about soda at lunch or in the classroom. I’m talking about kids, first grade to 8th grade, bringing in soda at 8am and drinking it with their French toast (I had a hard time giving them the syrup condiment that morning), carrying it with them through the halls, craving more of it as they drool into the faculty lounge where the soda vending machine is, and then carrying it with them through lunch, into snack, and into their supper meals that we also provide.

It’ everywhere.

And it’s not their fault. It’s not anyone’s fault but our own. As most know who read this blog, food access in this country is a sad irony of a failed destructive system we build ourselves; a system that has set us up to become obese. The kid carrying their soda bottle at 8am into the school has no where to buy juice in the morning, little money and education to know why juice would be a good investment as opposed to the 99 cent bottle of orange soda, and no one telling him different at home. Of course he gets soda and brings it to class. It’s not only cheap but will also fill him up really quickly so at least he can pay attention in the history class he has first period.

This past week the kitchen staff started asking “where”. Where are you getting this soda? Before we gave them their breakfast we wanted to know where they were getting the soda so that the cooks knew why they weren’t eating the food…. soda consumption is effecting everyone and I wanted to get my cooks involved in the talk…after all, they are spending their time making the food and if they aren’t eating it, I would want to know who’s wasting my time.

And after each student gave us an answer they got their meal. We found most were actually getting it from home, which is absolutely terrifying. Again the disconnect in food access is always food education and asking why they are stocking their homes with soda is more important than wondering why the kid brought it in now. It’s cheap.

So, the ultimate issues, as stated, is education. How do we work with families to understand the priorities of moving their income to be spent on quality rather than quantity and telling them that truly, in the end, you will save more money and be healthy? Addressing this is huge and with parents. The last thing parents want to hear is someone preaching to them about how wrong they feeding their kids. But we don’t really have a choice….our work in our kitchen at this school becomes about the parents.

On back to school night you can be sure that not only will we be talking about the food we are serving but about the importance of what the food is and why. After all, the beginning of education starts with a conversation …and I’m looking forward to it.

3rd year and the First Lady

I’m approaching my third year at DC Central Kitchen working under the Fresh Start catering umbrella arm in school food dining services. It’s been night and day in how we approach school food. Three years ago I, we, DCCK, were getting our feet wet by feeding 72 kids in a private school in North East. Year two brought us both clients in the public charter school sector and of course, the pilot program we were granted for 7 DCPS schools (these schools were the most under served in the over 100 schools that DCPS has on its roster). And now, in year three, our feet are no longer wet but rather soaking with experience, knowledge, and the tools to move into different schools to feed and also educate.

I am one of now a team of school food chefs with DCCK. Just as we have expanded our operations to develop more schools we needed more chefs to help execute them and I am honored to work with them.

This year my home base is at Walker Jones Education Campus right in the heart of the city. This school ALSO just happens to have a one-acre farm on it. But before I can use the produce that grows on the farm I have to have forms filled out signed by parents saying that their kid can eat the produce…. AND we then have to get the soil tested…makes sense and all but do you know how hard it is to get 436 waivers back? My next goal is to then figure out how much produce actually needs to be grown so that we can feed the students each their 4oz of vegetable portion as mandated for lunch by the Healthy Schools Act and national school lunch program.

You can be sure that Iron chef competitions will happen and guest chefs will visit. My goal is to try and get the First lady to visit the school and see how far we are going to get kids to understand the importance and role of food in their lives.

But then again…. when you have kids, who on the 5th day of school ask you when the salad bar starts well, that makes me think that maybe these guys already know the role of good food in their lives.

School Year Wrap Up

My year ends in August; not December.

For folks in school food August is the time to get away for a few weeks and come back ready to hit the ground running. This year I’ll be taking some much needed family time in NJ and NYC but the reality is, I’ll be thinking about Washington and the student’s I’ll get to meet and feed next year.

For the last year I have worked mostly with two schools and consulted on a dozen or so. It’s been an amazing year of working with middle school boys, college kids, toddlers, and of course the Spanish speaking emersion high school. Many demographics, many ages, many social economic backgrounds have taught me many things about food, people, and more importantly, how communities can come together using food as a tool. Next year wont be any different….except for the fact that I’ll have a one acre farm outside my office that I can walk to, harvest, and prepare food for the school with.

This tool, having a working, growing farm on a school campus, right behind the home of the President is pretty exciting. Big things are going to happen next year and I’m exciting to work with all of the new faces. I’m excited to teach them why food is so important to your life and how it brings people together.

Vacation….how do you go on vacation when you love what you do?

The egg and the mouse

How many words can you type per minute? What about how fast can you copy and paste something into a new document? Or how about how fast you can find something on Google; like directions?….. really think about. How much do you use the computer and how long did it take you to get “up to speed”?

I ask these questions because in the last month I have been asking myself these questions. I’m in the process of teaching my sous chef how to make prep lists on an Excel sheet, how to type out the school menu of the day in a Word document, and how to do ordering with email. Said sous chef has never used a computer. He holds the mouse as if it’s a fragile egg and moves it with such attention that I find myself laughing with the whole perspective of things.

That’s my reality; teaching a 42 year old man who has never used a computer to learn how to jump into today’s chef world of emails, online ordering, Googling, excel sheet building, labor tracking, and scheduling.

Howard is going to master this; no doubt. And as he masters the computer, he is also learning that in today’s culinary world, computer skills are just as important as good knife skills. Here we come 500 words per minute…well, you know what I mean 😉

Breaking the Glass Ceiling Through School Food

I believe she was wearing 5 or 7 bracelets on each arm. She had pink acrylic nails on and hair that resembled Adam Lambert’s.

This week I was lucky enough, despite all the bracelets and nail polish (a big no no in food service) to have two female 11th graders shadow me at school to learn more about the culinary field. For a few hours these young women got a glimpse of what my days are like. One of them had an issue with the 5 am wake up call but for the most part, these two young and focused women came with questions, an open mind, and ready to work on their knife skills.

School food is a lot of things for me: it’s the ability to use great food to educate, to teach, to excite, to grow, and to connect. It’s a platform to reach many generations and teach them why food, up their with family, is so important in one’s life. But, school food also serves as a great arena to showcase how the glass ceiling of gender roles is visible in the culinary field.

Many have written, spoken, and also ignored the fact that men dominate the culinary field. Of course they do. It’s set up for women to fail. Most women put their health and family first and as a result, most women (or most people) don’t want to work over 80 hours a week with no to little time off. It’s a hard business to be in, no matter what area of food service you are in. Most women have a hard time balancing out family and food service gigs, no matter how you shape the gender roles of parenting.

I thrive in school food because it’s more meaningful to me, not saying all women, than a tasting menu. Tasting menus are lovely and amazing but I personally need more. I get to do “restaurant work” with community outreach. Perhaps that’s where more women feel connected. Perhaps that’s why most school food service operations are staffed by hourly and salaried women. Perhaps that’s why I was sent a few female students to explore school food operations. Perhaps!

The young women that entered our kitchen this week are seeking new experiences, they are taking risks, and they are going after something that makes them feel good and happy. They aren’t going after security but rather after sincerity. I have no doubt that no matter where these two young women end up in food service that they will break down barriers of gender and make stronger communities along the way.

Great School Food+Team Building= WINNING!

May is usually a great month for me; it’s my birthday, the weather is nice and comfortable, great produce is out from the farms and we begin to stock up on bulk production to take us into, yes, winter. Thus far, this May has been no different from last year. I celebrated a great birthday with great company and great food (at Tokyo Underground), the weather is amazing, and we just began making our big batches of tomato sauce this week for the first stages of freezing for fall and winter.

We also got a great visit this week from the folks at CentroNia Public charter schools. The chef and food service director came by our school to check us and talk shop.

It’s very hard for chefs, food service providers, etc to get time to visit others, to compare notes, to actually not be in reaction mode and work on making progress. But when they do, great things usually come of it. In our case, we came to a great plan. And I’m going to tell you about it!

CentrNia is a group of schools focusing on a Hispanic population in the Columbia Heights section of Washington, D.C. The chef there, also a female!, works with her kitchen staff of 5 to create breakfast and lunch programs that are delicious, healthy, and culturally comforting to those she feeds. She takes time to work, teach, and demo, just like I do, with her staff and her students to better educate them. She also works with a younger age group, starting at 3 years of age.

I have also overseen an operation with a daycare center. Let me tell you, feeding kids that early is a golden opportunity, as Jamie Oliver will tell you, to capture their palates, capture their association with food, health, and pure delicious tastes, to make them get the connection of how amazing food, real food, is. And when they have it, it’s theirs, it’s yours, and as long as you keep them on that track, their palates will PREFER that food to fast food. Chef Beatriz does just that and it’s something I commend her for.

But other than all of that work we do to feed kids better food, we came up with something a bit better……….cross training. No kitchen functions without acting as a team and the more the team players know how to help out the other players, the better your team is at …..WINNING! So, as Beatriz and I chatted we talked about our staff and how it would be great to have them kitchen swap. Have my big guys go over to her school and work with the Hispanic woman making tortillas from scratch; have them really understand a great salsa recipe. Then, have her folks over to our school and check out how we cook our collard greens, how we make panko breadcrumbs, and how we make our version of ranch dressing. It’s about the kids but it’s also about the staff. And without a great, strong, and open minded staff, you can’t make kids meals better and better. You can’t teach someone to care but you can sure teach someone when they have passion. I look forward to next month when we continue the learning and education of not just the children we feed, but the minds and hearts we work along side with everyday. Cheers!