Kelsey Weisgerber isn't your typical lunch lady. The 26-year-old food-service director for the Environmental Charter School (ECS) in Regent Square is busy innovating her school's lunch program. And it's working.
"Miss Kelsey," she says a seventh-grader once told her, "I never realized you were giving me the healthiest thing I eat all day."
This year, Weisgerber is hoping to drive that lesson home by hiring two full-time food educators. The school has also newly partnered with Pittsburgh Community Kitchens, working out of The Neighborhood Academy in Garfield. There, 80 percent of food for both schools will be cooked from scratch, at a cost that is close to (though still higher than) the budget for many public schools.
With their relative autonomy, charters can be a laboratory for lunchroom innovations, which may someday be transferrable to public schools as well. Weisgerber hopes her program can become a "model that's achievable for other districts."
This week, Downtown's City Charter High School welcomed back its students, who will receive lunch cooked fresh by another innovative food-service director, chef Mike Curry.
From his enviable on-site industrial kitchen, Curry aims to provide more "real-world" food experiences. "Every day, there are options," he says. "We'll serve a salad with three protein options, fresh soup and a baked potato. All wraps include fresh field greens." Out of the 425 meals a day Curry serves, a quarter of them are salads, due to student demand.
Both Weisgerber and Curry imply that "it takes a village" to feed a child well, and that revamping old food systems requires collaboration between local farmers, chefs, vendors, schools, the government and, yes, the kids.
Community participation is key. "Regular people caring about what kids eat will drive our future food market," says Weisgerber. "If kids eat all processed foods, we're going to see all processed foods in 10 years."
"First, schools have to believe in it," says City Charter's assistant principal Angela Welch. "We've chosen this battle. We will not serve chicken nuggets."
But surely the kids protest?
"You know, they were so excited for fresh strawberries," says Welch, "you'd think we just put money out in a bowl."