RELATED STORY BELOW: Meet Ann Arbor Public Schools Chef Neil Murphy who shares his favorite recipe.
By Casey Hans
They’re getting a healthy dose of good eating at Tappan Middle School, where visitors from a national conference recently toured the school’s Agrarian Garden and heard about expanded healthy cafeteria offerings by Chartwells, the Ann Arbor school district’s food service provider.
Jeremy Moghtader, a member of The Agrarian Adventure nonprofit board that coordinates the school garden, explained how the community and school started the project in 2003.
“There’s been a lot of heavy lifting by a lot of volunteers,” said Moghtader, who, in addition to volunteering for The Agrarian Adventure, works as program coordinator for the MSU Student Organic Farm project. He was speaking to a group from the National Farm to Cafeteria Conference that was visiting Tappan.
The garden has spawned everything from an after-school garden club (that got a grant from the Women’s Farm and Garden Club and built a passive solar greenhouse) to the sixth-grade gym class that hauled steel for the greenhouse structure and math classes that squared the site for construction. Since the garden’s beginnings, he said, myriad classroom teachers have used it for lessons such as American History – where students grow and cook with root vegetables in a Colonial style – and math classes that learn about graphing by laying out planting beds.
Tappan students plant seedlings on Earth Day and each fall there is a Harvest Dinner where 100-plus people enjoy the fruits of the Tappan garden on a sliding fee scale.
“We wanted students to have a positive healthy interaction and exposure to these things,” Moghtader added. “They’re having fun growing food, preparing food. They eat it and grow it from seed. It’s really cool and they love it.”
Elissa Trumbull, also a volunteer for The Agrarian Adventure project, said the nonprofit also expands out into the elementary schools by bringing local farmers into classrooms. In the coming school year, she said, group hopes to use the Tappan garden site for elementary school visits and other lessons.
She said the garden also connects students from different grades. For example, eighth-graders plant watermelons each year that are enjoyed by the incoming sixth-graders. “We’re helping to draw those connections between people.” She said. “It’s a large school community.”
The nonprofit started with the goal of “enriching the students’ connection to the Earth,” said Trumbull. They operate with grants and donations.
Healthy approach in cafeterias
During the recent tour, an expansion of a the district’s Farm-to-School program was being unveiled by representatives of Chartwells, the Ann Arbor schools food service vendor.
Called “Farm Fresh Days,” the program was started in 2006 with a grant to bring bresh produce from local farms one day each week at three schools, eventually expanding to all schools and fresh produce two days each week. The fresh produce also is used in recipes and placed in food bars for students, said David Lahey, food services director for The Ann Arbor Public Schools.
It was expanded this spring to three days per week at Tappan and will eventually be rolled out to other schools in the coming years, Lahey said. The new approach will mean a “more Mediterranean approach” to cooking, Lahey said. “It will be a lot more hands-on cooking, taking salt away and adding spices to bring the flavors back,” he said.
Lahey said the fresh fruit and vegetable intake by students more than doubled in the second year of the program and it is growing by the year.
“Even if you don’t buy lunch, you can have the salad bar with fresh fruits and fresh vegetables,” he said. “The kids are very demanding. They want the fresh produce. They’re eating the pizza, but they’re also going to the salad bar and eating the broccoli and vegetables.”
As part of this initiative, “wellness champions” are assigned to each building to encourage students to try new things and volunteers offer students samples to that end.
A healthy overall impact
Encouraging healthy eating can have a huge impact in a large district like Ann Arbor, Lahey said. Ann Arbor Public Schools serves between 5,000 and 7,000 students each day, representing between 40 and 50 percent of the student population.
The Agrarian Adventure’s Trumbell called the current movement toward healthy produce in The Ann Arbor Public Schools unique. “It’s very significant that they are bringing in local food and devoting resources to doing it,” she said.
Sara Aeschbach, director of Community Education & Recreation for the district, serves on the district’s Wellness Committee and has been involved with the Farm-to-School Program, as well. She said both the Agrarian garden and the Chartwells Fresh Days program are important to teaching students about good health.
“We’re really trying to get kids to enjoy produce,” she said. “We’re trying to get kids to taste new things. I think these new initiatives support this.”
Chartwells has instituted several other programs in the district to assist families learn healthier eating habits. At Mitchell Elementary School, backpacks are filled with food that 15-20 children take home on Fridays with enough food to get a family through the weekend, Lahey said.
Because of the high number of students that qualify for the free-and-reduced lunch program at Mitchell, the district is able to feed the entire school breakfast each school day, he added. “We look for ways to help the community.”
They also do monthly cooking demos and give healthy eating tips at the Preschool & Family Center when families arrive to get their food distribution from Food Gatherers.
Chef Neil enjoys kitchen time with kids
Occupation: Executive chef for The Ann Arbor Public Schools, working with Chartwells food service.
Residence: Canton Township.
Education: Associate’s degree in Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management from Washtenaw Community College.
Family: Married to Lindsey for 5 years. They have a 16-month-old daughter, Ora.
Pets: A 5-year-old cocker spaniel named Freckles.
Hobbies: In addition to creating his art in the kitchen, he loves to airbrush and designs a small line of clothing and shirts that he sells to close friends. He enjoys listening to techno music.
Community service: Works locally with Food Gatherers, offering nutritious recipes, tips and monthly cooking demonstrations to parents at the Ann Arbor Preschool & Family Center. He and his wife also direct the youth program at their church, Detroit First Church of the Nazarene in Northville Township.
Favorite meal: Seared yellow-fin tuna with Asian spices and a Mandarin orange sesame slaw with fresh ginger. (see recipe below)
Favorite read: “Saveur” Magazine.
Life philosophy: “Live life, but live it in the right direction.”
From AAPSNews Service
Neil Murphy has gotten a taste of his ideal job and he likes it.
The executive chef for The Ann Arbor Public Schools and Chartwells food service oversees the entire menu planning for school cafeterias and district catering services. Murphy said he figuratively “uses his food as his paint” as he creates new recipes and plans for meals.
“It has been the most phenomenal job – the best fit,” said Murphy, 27. He started his career doing a variety of food work at such local venues as the Barton Hills Country Club and The Lord Fox. “Through all of the jobs I’ve worked, I’ve been able to use all of the skills I’ve learned,” he added.
Murphy originally began his schooling in art education, but veered in another direction that allows him to use his artistic talent. But Murphy still has the best of both worlds in Ann Arbor where working with students is still part of this job. He takes care each day to see that students are well fed, receive a balanced meal and one that he is proud to put his name to, he said.
Murphy said when he visits the classroom, he encourages students both in healthy eating as well as considering food as a career. The chef’s hat he sports adds an extra element of fun and he said students sometimes treat him like a celebrity. “Kids get excited about it,” he said of his visits. “It’s very exciting to see where culinary arts is going.”
Choosing food over teaching turned out to be a good thing. “I fell in love with it more than I thought I was going to,” he said. “I wanted to do something I would love to do every day.”
Last fall, Murphy began working with Food Gatherers on monthly visits to the Ann Arbor Preschool and Family Center. On the same day that Food Gatherers distributes food at the school, Murphy does a cooking demonstration for healthy eating options and gives families taste tests and a recipe that they can take home with their food.
On his first visit to the Preschool and Family Center last fall, Murphy said he could tell the program would be a hit. “It was impressive to them,” he said. “The kids absolutely loved it. Some of them gave me hugs. It was great.”
Sara Aeschbach, the district’s director of community education and recreation, works with a number of district wellness initiatives. She was at the preschool center during one of Murphy’s presentations, where he offered easy inexpensive ingredients and a menu of homemade chicken strips, carrots cut and baked to resemble French fries and sautéed potatoes.
“Beyond that, he chatted with each parent, explaining how to choose kid-friendly foods that are healthy and easy,” Aeschbach said in a thank you note to Chartwells. “This was a great support of our wellness efforts, to encourage eating at home rather than fast food. He really outdid himself!”
Murphy said he is hopeful that with renovations of the Pioneer High School’s food service area this summer, he can work more closely with the school’s culinary arts program in the coming years, perhaps helping to teach students about the food business.
On a personal note, Murphy said family and God are the most important things to him. A middle child, he grew up with two sisters and is now is married with a 16-month-old daughter. He and his wife, Lindsey, often communicate with family members, including his out-of-state parents, via Skype and YouTube.
Chef Neil’s Favorite Seared Yellowfin Tuna
(on a bed of long julienne slaw and dressed with a spicy mandarin-sesame glaze)
4 yellowfin tuna steaks
3 T Asian sea salt
1/2 tsp poppyseeds
3 stalks of celery
1 small can of mandarin oranges
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
1/2 cup sweet-and-sour sauce
1 T toasted sesame seeds
Rub Asian sea salt on all sides of tuna steaks; sear to rare, then slice thin.
Use a mandoline on the julienne setting, slide vegetables carefully across the blades only using the skin and part of the meat of the vegetables. Try not to get the seeds. Around two swipes per side. Combine vegetables in a metal bowl, set aside to prepare glaze.
Spicy Mandarin Glaze
Combine the sweet-and-sour sauce, can of mandarin oranges and 1/2 juice, red pepper flakes and toasted sesame seeds. Pulse in a food processor until combined. Mix glaze with vegetables. Save a little for your tuna.
Garnish with fresh pickled ginger.