Blog / Interviews, Impact

This Chef Has Big Dreams for School Food

Maggie Borden

August 02, 2017

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Charleen Badman has long been a fixture of the Phoenix dining scene, earning raves and four consecutive James Beard Award semifinalist nods for her locally inspired cooking at FnB. But the acclaimed chef has also made a name for herself as a tireless advocate for improving childhood nutrition and food education. Earlier this year, Badman convened a meeting of Arizona chefs and educators to discuss new efforts to take on food in schools statewide. We spoke with Badman about the experience of working with children, what changes she’d like to see in the cafeteria, and what the average person can do to improve school food.

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JBF: How did you become interested in school lunch and childhood nutrition?

CB: I don’t have any children of my own, but a really wonderful vice-principal from a nearby school, Arcadia Neighborhood Learning Center, came into the restaurant one day and introduced herself, and told me about this program called Chef in the Garden. They have a beautiful garden at the school, and they invite chefs to come out and talk to the children.

The first class I taught was pretty young, like first and second grade. We made some meatballs, and for dessert we used lemon verbena from a bush in the garden and infused it into cream for panna cotta. I thought that would be a stretch for children that young, but they loved it. What an experience, to be able to pick a leaf, rub it on your hands, and know what lemon verbena smells like when you’re seven!

It was amazing to see how my talking and cooking with the kids made them think about what they’re putting into their bodies. I wish somebody had done that for me.

JBF: Is there a particular age when children are most open to and engaged with lessons about farming, cooking, and nutrition?

CB: The Chef in the Garden Program is from kindergarten to eighth grade, and I’ve probably been to every classroom this year. There’s definitely a clear progression: I’ve had kids spit dates into my hands at first, but then become a little more open-minded around second, third, fourth, even fifth grade. But by sixth grade they shut back down again. They start to feel like it’s not cool to eat a vegetable. So if we can reach them a little bit earlier, I think it makes a huge difference.

I’ve been at Arcadia for seven years now, so the kids that were in kindergarten when we started are heading into the seventh and eighth grade now, and I can see they are a little more open to trying things.

If I’m reaching the children that are in kindergarten through eighth grade, then that effort translates into a high school student that wants to have a better lunch program. It’ll continue to an adult who eats better. It’ll continue to an adult that expects better from what is coming out of those cafeterias.

JBF: What is one change cafeterias can make to improve their offerings for kids?

CB: I’d like to see more fresh food. I’ve cooked lunch in the cafeteria a few times, and you look in the walk-in refrigerator, and it’s empty—all the food is in the freezer. We need to offer kids more things that are not frozen or packaged.

I know they make more money selling these things, and that they only have $1.25 per kid to work with, but there’s got to be something that you could sell that’s not a bag of chips or chocolate milk.

JBF: Tell us a bit about the meeting of Arizona chefs you convened earlier this year around childhood nutrition? Who attended, and what were your goals for that meeting?

CB: We wanted to keep it small for this first round, so we had about 20 chefs, many of whom had worked with the Chef in the Garden program. We had Taylor, the vice-principal from Arcadia, who developed the program. We had a teacher from a nearby high school who has her students in a cooking curriculum, and we had someone from our local Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP) chapter.

My goal for this first gathering was just to try to get a community of chefs to really focus on this issue. Our plan is to convene again in September; hopefully with a group twice the size of what it was this time. I’d like to have some politicians, some representatives from the Arizona Department of Education, some cafeteria workers, and some high school students.

JBF: If you could get chefs to do just one thing to get more involved in school lunch and childhood nutrition, what would you like them to do?

CB: It’s been a goal of mine to get a chef into every school. You have to go in with a plan, and know what you need in terms of resources, but I’d like to get chefs to adopt a school, and help build more of these gardens. It’s just about the small amounts of change. If you sow a garden and students are able to see how things grow and where food comes from, then they’re just going to want more, and it becomes a cycle that we can continue to improve on.

JBF: What about the average person, how can they do more around these issues?

CB: I think if you’re a parent, you should get involved in your school lunch program. I’d also like to see a change in the types of treats that are brought into school. There have to be other options for rewarding a child than doughuts and cupcakes. The parents need attention and education, too. If I wasn’t in this business, I probably wouldn’t be thinking about it either, but I’ve made a lifestyle change, and I want to share that with people. I don’t just want to tell them “don’t eat that”—I want to show them there are other options.

JBF: You participated in our Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change. Is there anything that you’ve changed or done differently since you attended, either in your advocacy work or professionally?

CB: I walked away from Boot Camp feeling so much stronger and so much more knowledgeable about what is happening in the arena of childhood nutrition. It was such a motivational experience. To be told that as a chef, people are going to listen to you before they’re going to listen to a doctor or a nutritionist—how empowering is that? It made me feel like that I can make a real difference, even if it’s just one child that decides he’s going to change his eating habits.

There’s a district that wants us to come out and look at their garden program and their ideas. It’s amazing to see how they’re reaching out to us, just because they saw our posts on social media. This all takes a team: it takes the parents, the teachers, the chefs. It’s just not going to be one person. It won’t just be me making the change. I need as many people as possible.

Get a taste of Charleen’s cooking with her recipe for Black Barley Salad.

Learn more about JBF Impact Programs.

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Maggie Borden is associate editor at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.