Herb Mesa hasn’t had any trouble being in front of an audience before. But this time, it wasn’t to become the Next Food Network Star. This time, it was an opportunity for the Atlanta personal chef to promote healthy eating habits in Atlanta Public Schools. Mesa was one of 50 “celebrity chefs” to participate in the APS part of National School Lunch Week by visiting schools, serving up lunch to hungry students, and arming them with healthy eating information.
For Mesa it was a tripleheader of a week; while he served lunch on Friday at North Atlanta High School, he’d paid earlier visits to schools where he has his daughters are enrolled: Garden Hills Elementary and Sutton Middle. “I have children of mine own; I l remember what school lunches were like,” Mesa said before serving it up at North Atlanta. “I felt like it would be a cool opportunity to get involved … to maybe make a change with school lunches.”
No shrinking violet, Mesa eagerly served up sandwiches with his co-worker for the day, Tanji, and they both noted how students – especially in high school – are becoming better informed about nutrition and are making better decisions in their diet.
It’s all about of APS health and wellness efforts spearheaded by Dr. Marilyn Hughes, APS’ director of nutrition administration. (Read the transcipt of her interview with CNN here.) She noted that this is the first year APS’ participation in National School Lunch Week has been so comprehensive. “The most important reason for making the community and parents aware of the nutritional meals served at lunchtime is because we’re providing the main meal for students during the day,” she said. “The meals in lunchtime has the highest amount of calories they get, and we want to make sure at APS they received the highest nutritional value of the meal they’ll consume because we will provide locally grown fruits and vegetables on a daily basis as well as a nutritious meal to meet their needs for the day.”
Earlier in the week at Mary Lin Elementary, guests K. Bradley Rouse – team chef for the Atlanta Hawks – and Congressman John Lewis dropped by to celebrate this national week of observance of healthy eating in the schools. Rouse offered students a choice of barbecue chicken, cheese pizza, Asian wrap or a salad plate with sweet potatoes, side salad or roll.
“I enjoyed seeing the kids today and it’s really cool seeing them excited about coming to lunch,” said Rouse. “I’m really happy to be serving a great healthy lunch. If I weren’t so busy during the basketball season, I would do this all the time.”
A chef for 15 years, Rouse is beginning his sixth season as team chef for the Atlanta Hawks. He attended both the Art Institute of Atlanta and Ft. Lauderdale, and the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, Calif. Rouse’s family connection led him to participate at Lin. “My nieces Isabella and Millicent Rouse attend school here, so I figured this would be a good time to visit them,” he said. Rouse said he was always first in the lunch line when he was in school: “The ladies always cooked better than the lunch I brought from home.”
John Lewis also stopped by, asking Lin students if they were enjoying their meals. “It’s good to come and see the young children enjoying their lunch,” said Lewis. “When I was in elementary school, I never had a lunch like this. It’s very important that children eat healthy and get into the habit of eating healthy at an early age.”
The week also highlighted APS’ “Fresh Pick” options of locally grown fruits and vegetables that are served on a daily basis to APS students. Other celebrity chefs and the schools they visited included Chef Delma De La Fuente, who is an APS parent, helping serve lunch and kick off the district’s Smoothie Dream Initiative at Sutton Middle School; and nationally-acclaimed chef and former TNT cooking show host Marvin Wood, who went to Bunche Middle School.