PITTSFIELD, Maine — Most people would throw away food that has turned purple or lime green, but in the case of cauliflower it’s a change for the better, according to a presentation by an executive chef Thursday at Warsaw Middle School.
That didn’t stop noses from wrinkling, heads from shaking and a few audible groans.
“I know, I know,” said Anthony Bussiere, an executive chef for NorthCenter Performance Foodservice, to the couple of hundred students in attendance. “They mix cauliflower with eggplant or broccoli to make these colors, but it tastes the same. It’s very good for you.”
For most of Bussiere’s many questions, the students had answers at the ready.
“What’s better, white milk or chocolate milk?” he asked.
“Whiiiiiiite!” they yelled.
“Are salted or unsalted peanuts better?”
“What’s the only fruit that has all its seeds on the outside?” asked Bussiere, eliciting the loudest response of the day.
“Strawberries!” Several of the adults in attendance, some of them teachers, shrugged at each other as if they hadn’t known the answer.
Bussiere, who has spent 35 years in the food service business, usually spends his time demonstrating products for large-scale clients or helping restaurants develop recipes around a certain ingredient. He said visits with schoolchildren are one of the most important aspects of his job.
“I do this as often as I can,” he said. “I’m trying to promote a back-to-scratch mentality.” What he means by that, he said, is the cooking and consumption of whole foods as opposed to something premade that comes in a box from a company whose motivation most likely is to keep costs down, not nutrition. That and five servings of fruits and vegetables per day were his mantras.
That’s a tall order in schools, which according to Bussiere are restricted to serving meals that cost no more than about $2 per student. Even at that level of funding, Bussiere said major changes are possible if more school systems would embrace them.
Sandy Wright, SAD 53’s food service director, said Bussiere’s visit was part of a larger initiative in the school department to teach students healthy eating practices. Fueled by a $17,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture won by Wright and Warsaw Principal Sandy Nevens last year, the program exposes middle school students to weekly lessons about nutrition.
“Today was a reinforcement of what we’ve been doing all year,” said Nevens. “This is a delicate age. It’s a time when these students are really starting to develop who they’re going to be in their lives.”
Among Bussiere’s lessons was the suggestion that each student go grocery shopping with his or her parents and pick at least one fruit or vegetable they’ve never tried before. After Bussiere’s talk, the students sampled from a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, ranging from star fruit to (gasp!) purple and green cauliflower. For the most part the students were receptive.
“I’m going to go shopping with my parents to pick out some new fruits and vegetables,” said Devon Varney, a fifth-grader from Pittsfield. “I think I’d like to try mango first.”
Other students said they’d take Thursday’s lessons a step further.
“I’m going to tell my parents, ‘You guys should eat more fruits and vegetables so you can feel better,’” said Nellie Bush, also a fifth-grader from Pittsfield. “If you’re sick, eating better can help you get better faster.”