Raising Food Awareness, One Crop at a Time
By Gavin Menu
On a daily basis, Chef Matthew Doris deals with some of the most discerning diners on the East End. As the food service director for the Tuckahoe School in Southampton, Doris serves breakfast and lunch to roughly 230 students in pre-K through 8th grade every day and has to be on his toes to both satisfy their hunger and produce healthy and nutritional meals that are mandated by the government.
Doris, the district’s food service director, goes well beyond state and federal mandates, however. His garden, now eight years in the making, produces hundreds of pounds of produce each season, even during the winter when he uses cold frames over his existing beds to produce hearty greens, carrots and beets.
The educational benefits of the garden are just as substantial as the thousands of dollars saved by the garden’s production, an important note for a district operating on a contingency budget after its original budget failed to be passed by voters earlier this year.
“I can buy a pack of cucumber seeds for four dollars, and now I have produced 100 pounds of cucumbers,” said Doris, who had a background working for Whole Foods and Wild By Nature before he became a food service employee in local school districts. “I already had the experience and exposure to the world of natural food so for me, it wasn’t foreign. For me, this is what we should be doing.”
Doris envisions a world where children learn about food quality and sustainability in the classroom before getting their hands dirty in the garden. The next step comes in the school cafeteria, where Doris adorns the walls with posters and charts about healthy eating. The next and perhaps most critical step is for parents to provide a healthy dietary environment at home.
“Parents are more conscience now about GMO’s and organic methods,” said Doris. “That’s part of it, but the other big issue is a couple years ago the federal government upgraded the school lunch program by changing the regulations to increase fruits, vegetables and whole grains and eliminate junk food and snacks.”
The garden at Tuckahoe, which Doris has to “grow according to the school schedule,” produces kid-friendly crops like carrots, potatoes, zucchini and cucumbers. The garden produces more than 50 pounds of leafy greens for salads, and an assortment of herbs used to increase flavor in pizza sauces and quesadillas, both of which are served on whole grain crusts and tortillas. The newest addition to the garden, which was made possible by grants from the Stony Brook School of Medicine, is an apple and pear orchard that should begin to bear fruit next spring.
“If you ask the kids where an apple comes from, a lot of them are going to say the grocery store,” Doris said. “If they come out here and pick it, it becomes part of the learning environment of the school.”
Of course, Doris has to supplement his garden supply with produce from other purveyors. He is, after all, serving more than 2,000 meals every week. But the educational benefits combined with the cost savings, though minimal, and the school garden becomes a winning proposition, one Doris would like to see more parents implement at home.
“I realized that if you make a school garden part of the curriculum, just like kids know two plus two equals four, they will have a solid understanding about food and where it comes from,” Doris said. “One of the big reasons people don’t eat healthy is the cost of produce. If you have space at home for a garden, yeah there’s some time and effort you have to put into it, but the rewards are unbelievable.”
An Average Lunch at Tuckahoe
The federal government requires school lunches to contain five items: milk, whole grains, fruits, vegetables and meats or meat substitutes. “There’s a certain number of calories you can serve and a certain amount of fats and sodium,” said Matthew Doris, the school’s food service director. “I’d say we’re well ahead of the game here.”
Here is an example of a recent lunch at Tuckahoe:
Chicken Quesadilla with a whole wheat tortilla, and onions from the garden