Gourmet school lunches? Durham chefs and cafeteria workers join culinary forces.

Bridgette Harper-Reid, left, who works at Creekside Elementary School in Durham, and Nora Polanco of food truck So Good Pupusas take part in a kickoff for Durham Bowls on Monday, April 16, 2018.
Bridgette Harper-Reid, left, who works at Creekside Elementary School in Durham, and Nora Polanco of food truck So Good Pupusas take part in a kickoff for Durham Bowls on Monday, April 16, 2018. Courtesy of Justin Cook

Durham has gained a reputation as a foodie's mecca and gastronomical playground for adults, with a vibrant brunch scene and plenty of food trucks. But why should grownups have all the fun?

Enter Durham Bowls, a collaborative initiative with the goal of adding a little spice to public schools' cafeteria food.

The program pairs cafeteria managers from Durham elementary schools with chefs from the city's restaurant culture. Together, they’ll design new and exciting meal plans for school cafeterias.

The program’s architects are Beth Hopping and Linden Thayer, who studied childhood nutrition at UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke. They co-direct a food systems research organization called the Food Insight Group—“or FIG, for short,” Thayer said. “Basically, if a project is going to improve the community through food, we’re game.”

Hopping and Thayer were inspired by a November event hosted by the James Beard Foundation and Blue Cross Blue Shield. “It was explicitly to train chefs on school food, to understand it,” Thayer said.

Chefs aren’t used to operating under the tight constraints that cafeteria managers face — restrictive budgets, regulated salt content, dietary restrictions and, of course, picky eaters.

For FIG, the next step was to combine the “two wells of knowledge,” Thayer said. “You’ve got the chefs' creativity and food knowledge and then you’ve got the managers who know kids, who know their schools.”

“We want to bring them together and put them in a context in which they can relax and get to know each other and build ... fabulous school food,” Thayer said.

Durham Bowls convened its first official meeting on a rooftop bar at The Durham in mid-April. FIG paired head chefs from well-known local eateries like Saltbox Seafood Joint, American Meltdown and the So Good Pupusas food truck with nutrition managers from across the Durham public school system.

Bridgette Harper-Reid, child nutrition manager at Creekside Elementary, sat near ZenFish Poké Bar chef Daniel Mohar — Harper-Reid in a light yellow Eeyore smock, Mohar with a spider tattoo on his forehead. Conversation at the table quickly turned to “favorite vegetables.” It was a meeting of the minds — and two worlds.

Each team designed a meal that meets high nutritional standards set by federal and local rules, and a couple extra requests from FIG. “It has to go in a bowl and it has to include at least one local ingredient provided by Farmer Foodshare,” a North Carolina nonprofit that helps get local food from the farm to the table, Hopping said.

Next month, the teams will test-drive and perfect their bowl recipes. It’s all in preparation for a taste-testing event in October, when “high-powered judges” — Durham public school students — will present awards to the best bowls. Hopping and Thayer hope the larger Durham community will join in for the public event, and snag a bite for themselves.

Jim Keaten, director of child nutrition for Durham public schools, devised the rules of the competition. Keaten plans to put each new bowl recipe in the rotation for cafeterias district-wide.

Tina Levy, a Durham public school mom and owner of local food supplier Firsthand Foods, said she applauds the Durham Bowls initiative. She appreciates the emphasis on “the importance of the nutritional quality of school food, because of the strong connection between nutrition and school performance."

Like many parents, Levy sends her child to E.K. Powe Elementary with a packed lunch. But nearly 70 percent of Durham elementary school students rely on free or reduced-price school lunch.

For FIG, it’s all about “supporting the amazing, caring, extremely hardworking people who work in school nutrition” in their quest to provide every child with delicious and nutritious food, Hopping said.

This “injection of new thinking,” Levy said, may just be the missing ingredient.