Food for Thought
The Oakland School Promotes Good Nutrition

By Katherine Ludwig

Originally appeared in November 2011

At the Oakland School, a small boarding and day school for children with learning disabilities, a holistic approach to child development and education is paramount to academic success. Students, who range in age from 6 to 14, come to Oakland because theyve been diagnosed with dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, non-verbal learning disabilities and/or visual and auditory processing disorders.

As these types of learning struggles often lead to social and emotional troubles as well, Oaklands mission is to provide not only customized academic instruction, but also a nurturing, confidence-boosting, home-like environment that enables students to reach their highest potential in all aspects of personal development. In other words, health and wellness are crucial aspects of the curriculum. Though the school is designed for kids with special needs, its promotion of healthy living and eating may provide a broad lesson in addressing an issue that has become increasingly universal  the alarming rate of childhood obesity.

According to the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity Report to the President in May 2010, one in every three children (or 31.7 percent) ages 2 to 19 is overweight or obese, and one-third of all children born in 2000 or later are on a trajectory to develop diabetes in their lifetimes. To combat this crisis, First Lady Michelle Obama launched the Lets Move! campaign in 2010 with the goal of reducing the obesity rate to five percent (or to late-1970s levels, when the rate first began to rise) by 2030. Since many children consume half of their daily calories at school, one of the initiatives key components promotes healthier school lunches and nutrition programs. By providing resources, education and financial incentives, the Lets Move! campaign, in conjunction with the national HealthierUS School Challenge certification program, encourages schools to give kids higher quality food and better choices. The campaign promotes whole grains, adds salad bars, replaces French fries with actual vegetables, cuts back on sodium, sugar and trans-fats and aligns with local chefs to develop appealing, healthy menus through the Chefs Move to Schools program.

Though not directly participating in these national programs, Oakland has made recent improvements to its school meal program that likely would make Michelle Obama proud. About two years ago, the school hired a veteran chef to replace its corporate food service vendor. The school has removed chocolate milk from the beverage selection, started phasing out white bread and exchanged fresh, seasonal food for the canned and frozen varieties.

After all of this, Oaklands dining budget actually has decreased! Whats the schools recipe for success?

A Healthy History

Oakland already is well known for its integrated equestrian program and for stressing physical and mental health and plenty of outside time. The schools campus, located on a 450-acre rural property in Keswick, provides plenty of daily exercise opportunities. There are recreational and intramural sports options, but students get plenty of physical activity just walking the grounds in between classes among the various outbuildings.

Because of its residential program, food has been a focus throughout the schools over-60-year history. Of the approximately 85 students who attend Oakland during the year (that number doubles during summer camp), roughly half are boarders. That means they eat three meals a day plus snacks on campus seven days a week.

We spend a lot of time teaching the six pillars of character  responsibility, respect, caring, trustworthiness, fairness and citizenship, says Oaklands Development Director, Leah Burger, and she says that meal times are one of the ways the kids honor those principles: The students wash hands, tuck in shirts and take off hats before coming together for a meal.

Treating meals as a sacred and respectful time is just part of the tradition of rearing young folks at Oakland, but Burger says that, in part because of the growing national concern over childrens poor eating habits, a couple of years ago the staff saw room for improvement.

Looking for a real chef with real restaurant experience was first and foremost. Implementing a policy that all teachers and staff eat with the students  same food, same time  was a next step to elevate the cafeteria bar.

Chef to Cafeteria Table

At the same time that Oakland was looking to replace its corporate food vendor, Mike Ioakimedes, a veteran chef with experience cooking in 20 different restaurants, most recently at Charlottesvilles former upscale Italian restaurant LAvventura and at the Middleburg Tennis Club in Middleburg, Virginia, was looking to return to food service after a stint in real estate. With restaurant tenure that included some pretty fancy French places, Ioakimedes says that initially he was worried about cooking for students:

I was afraid I was going to have to cook things like mashed peas and broccoli mush, he says. Fortunately, Ioakimedes found that turning a school cafeteria into restaurant quality shape was fairly easy for him. He quickly replaced frozen and canned foods with fresh and seasonal produce and switched from steaming vegetables to within an inch of recognition  mushy cafeteria carrots, anyone?  to roasting them. He also sources as much locally grown food as he can, which means its already in a fresher, tastier state.

Ioakimedes started a new practice of preparing the food right before it is eaten, which guarantees freshness. Just like in a restaurant, we cook down to the wire now. Everything is hot off the stove.  With Chef Ioakimedes on board, Oaklands food quality quickly shot up, but, surprisingly, the overall dining budget did not.

The cost of the dining program actually has gone down since we brought in Mike. With his good management and business experience, its a win-win  better for our budget and better food, says Burger.

As for his ability to provide fresher, higher-quality cafeteria food at lower cost, Ioakimedes says it wasnt exactly intentional. It just happened.

With my past experience, Im very conscious of over-ordering, and I hate wasting food, he says. In fact, more difficult than implementing better kitchen management processes, says Ioakimedes, is just devising menus that will appeal to a diverse clientele. With all staff and students now eating lunch together daily, the customer base ranges in ages 6-60. It makes the menu planning a bit more complicated, but having the staffs more mature palates at every lunch definitely inspires Ioakimedes to push the boundaries of the typical school menu.

Well try different things, Italian, Greek, says Ioakimedes.

Burger says shes eating far more fruits and vegetables herself now and that other staff members always comment that the midday meal at Oakland is their best of the day. Ioakimedes says staff are always popping into the cafeteria in the morning to eagerly ask him, Whats for lunch today, Mike? Alexis, a 13-year-old student, says that having the staff eat with the students is probably the biggest change from her previous school experience:

At my old school, not a single teacher ate in the cafeteria.

As for the picky kid crowd, Ioakimedes says theres always a peanut butter sandwich option. Hes proud to add, however, that few students go the safe route, opting instead to try out his changing daily menus, which run the gamut from rigatoni with steamed spinach and roasted butternut squash to classic turkey or veggie subs with orzo and chickpea salad.

Rosemary, a 13-year-old who came to camp at Oakland this past summer and decided to stay on as a boarder for the year, describes herself as a picky eater, but says she loves the food. Though she wasnt trying to lose weight, she just happens to have shed a few pounds since coming to Oakland. They make it so you have to make healthier choices, she says. We have to drink water before we can have juice. We have to take the vegetable or an apple or banana and eat our main meal before dessert. I feel so much better after I eat now. From what Ive seen, all the kids are healthier after being here. Another way Oakland students are given better choices is by the option of a salad bar, which Ioakimedes is proud to say is now restaurant quality.

Ioakimedes says hes also delighted when he hears rave reviews from parents who are surprised by their childs better eating habits at school. He says one parent contacted him to ask, What do you do to your broccoli?  My son said it was more delicious than dessert.  He went back for seconds, but it was all gone. He is loving the food.

  Gardens, Cooking Club and More

At Oakland, promoting good nutrition is not just about providing healthy food in the cafeteria, but about educating the students on developing long-lasting, good eating habits. Last year Ioakimedes led a student nutrition assembly, and also is engaged in a school- wide effort to expand the campus garden. Operations Director Hunter Smith says the student cooking club has become quite popular recently, as have four kitchen manager positions offered each year for students who want a job working with Ioakimedes in the cafeteria.

As opposed to that clichéd image of a leering lunch lady dumping greasy tater tots on your tray from behind the Plexiglas window, Ioakimedes has become a beloved member of the Oakland community, chatting amiably with the students standing in line for their lunch and taking suggestions for future meal offerings. He provides a kitchen column for the schools newsletter to enlighten the student body on the seasonality of food and such complicated topics as the carbon footprint of our food.

With input from a few international students, Chef Ioakimedes and his kitchen staff also are enticing the students with international culinary experiences. For example, this spring he prepared the classic Egyptian dish called koshary for the boarders with help from an Egyptian student and his mother, who emailed the recipe. This years fall quarter began with a Greek-themed lunch: Pastitsio-style macaroni and cheese with beef; beets with fresh dill; green beans in tomato sauce and baklava for dessert. This collaborative way of making good food fun and interesting for the students is the kind of ideal situation envisioned by the First Ladys Chefs Move to Schools program. At Oakland, though, its become business as usual.

Burger describes it this way: [Our] main goal is to develop the whole child. Food is important to their development, and healthy eating is just a big part of that.

Katherine is a local freelance writer and mother of two.  

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