School-grocer partnership gives students lessons on nutrition

Sustainability Workshop student Dominique Dixon, a vegetarian, is happy with her school lunch of salad, a kiwi, and a tofu, tomato, and Brie sandwich provided by Fresh Direct.
Sustainability Workshop student Dominique Dixon, a vegetarian, is happy with her school lunch of salad, a kiwi, and a tofu, tomato, and Brie sandwich provided by Fresh Direct. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 06, 2013

Thanks to her school lunches, Patience Vaughan discovered she likes grape leaves. Joey Olivo found out he's a fan of smoked salmon. Tiara Carter fell in love with lobster ravioli.

That's standard lunch fare at the Sustainability Workshop, an alternative senior-year program of the Philadelphia School District in which 29 students learn not in traditional classrooms, but by tackling real-world problems.

The meals - plus lots of fresh fruits and vegetables for snacking - come via FreshDirect, the New York-based online grocer now expanding into the Philadelphia market.

FreshDirect has committed to fully supplying the school's food, selected and ordered by students themselves, all year.

The effort costs the company about $1,000 a week, officials estimate. But it's not just a nice thing to do. The Sustainability Workshop students are charged with working on real problems in the Internet grocer's operations.

They'll soon be examining farm-to-warehouse delivery issues, for instance, and trying to brainstorm ways the company might reduce the amount of packaging it uses.

John Leeman, a Fresh Direct executive, saw a news report about the Sustainability Workshop last year and loved the idea of the school, which has attracted national attention for innovation. He reached out to workshop cofounder Simon Hauger, who jumped at the idea of better lunches for his students and a chance for them to tackle some of Fresh Direct's operational issues.

Last school year, the workshop's first, Hauger and his cofounders, all former teachers at West Philadelphia High, opted to skip the district's meals and handle lunch themselves. They'd shop for peanut butter, jelly, bread, lunchmeat, and fruit at wholesale clubs on the weekends, and students would help themselves all week.

But the budget only stretched so far.

"I'd bring 40 bananas in on Monday, and by 10 a.m., they'd all be gone," Hauger said. "This has made a big difference."

For some of the students - who come from South Philadelphia, Furness, and Benjamin Franklin High Schools - the fruits and vegetables they eat at lunch are the only ones they get all day. Nearly everyone says the FreshDirect lunches have raised their fruit and vegetable intake.

Devouring a salmon wrap after a FreshDirect nutritional education event held at workshop headquarters at the Navy Yard on Monday, Olivo, 18, said the new lunches had changed the way he eats.

"In the beginning of the year, if it was fast food, it was for me," said Olivo. "Now, I pay attention to my food."

When his mother and grandmother grocery-shop, they know what to buy for Olivo, he said - not soda and chips, but water, fruit, and vegetables.

How does the food stack up to what he ate at Ben Franklin? Olivo made a face.

"I pretty much ate pizza," he said. "And every time I got a slice, I tilted it sideways, and the grease would slide off. It was just nasty."

As a vegetarian, Dominique Dixon often skipped lunch at South Philadelphia High.

"Nothing good, or there was meat on everything," Dixon said. On Monday, her plate was loaded with a tofu, tomato and Brie sandwich; salad; and a whole kiwi.

"Fancy food," said Dixon, 18. "It's incredible."

And also educational. On Monday, FreshDirect cofounder David McInerney stood in front of the workshop students and held up a strawberry, teaching a lesson about why fruit bred to travel long distances and last for three weeks is not their best option.

"When it gets warmer," McInerney said, "I'm going to turn you on to a strawberry that will blow your mind. I want a strawberry that lasts for three or four days, but tastes amazing."

Leeman said he realizes that cost is a huge factor in the bigger school nutrition picture.

Because it must operate with the money the federal government gives it, the School District can only spend about $2.00 per lunch, a sum that doesn't allow for much in the way of fresh fruits and vegetables or inventive, healthy ingredients.

But alternatives are worth exploring, especially in the context of a growing awareness in the general population about healthy eating, Leeman said.

"Everyone is starting to care about these issues, but in a lot of neighborhoods, they can't access healthy foods easily," he said. "But if these kids ate the food and liked the food, that's a game-changer."


Contact Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, cell 215-327-6601 or on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.

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