When a chef lends his talents to the school cafeteria, students eat like ‘foodies’

Acclaimed Triangle chef Roberto Copa spent Thursday morning at a diminutive table with a group of 5-year-olds, patiently explaining why the rice they were eating was yellow.

Copa, whose Copa Restaurant was recently named one of The News & Observer’s Top Ten New Restaurants of 2018, switched easily between Spanish and English as he talked with George Watts Elementary School students about the meal he had designed for them.

As a participant in the first round of a partnership designed by Durham Bowls, Copa and Gwendolyn Coley, the food service manager at the school, developed a Cuban pork and rice bowl that debuted at schools across Durham this week.

When nutritionists sit down to plan school lunch menus, they face restrictions from federal, state and local governments. They have to factor in budget, kids’ tastes, and often outdated equipment. The cheapest and most efficient options for meeting all of these qualifications are often largely pre-cooked meals from national distributors.

Last year, Beth Hopping and Linden Thayer, founders of Food Insight Group, wanted to get the Durham community engaged with food in a new way.

“We thought the ‘foodiest town in the South’ should be represented in schools,” Hopping said.

Chef Roberto Copa, owner of downtown Durham restaurant Copa, poses for a portrait with school food service manager Gwendolyn Coley, at George Watts Elementary School on Thursday, Jan 24, 2019. Coley is holding the dish she and Copa created for Durham Public Schools, the Cuban pork and rice bowl. Julia Wall jwall@newsobserver.com

They built a community of chefs and school nutrition specialists that they called Durham Bowls, and set their teams to experimenting. On Thursday, Durham Public Schools rolled out their second of 10 new lunch bowls that came from this partnership. Each bowl features at least one local ingredient and one kind of fresh produce.

The chefs invited to participate come from intentionally diverse price points and culinary backgrounds, in hopes that the food will appeal to as many students as possible.

Chef Copa said he was initially hesitant to take on the project. In 2018, Copa and his wife were busy opening their second restaurant in the Durham area. When Hopping approached him about participating in the project, he turned her down, twice. But Copa’s affections for students and teachers eventually won him over, and he agreed to work with Durham Bowls.

“Coming from a family of teachers, I was very used to the whole system,” he said. Being a chef is actually Copa’s fourth career, and he looks back fondly on his days as a high school biology teacher.

The pork and rice bowl was created through a few rounds of trial and error. The initial idea was styled after traditional Cuban arroz con pollo. But pork worked better than chicken for the district, so Copa incorporated elements of the Spanish dish arroz con garbanzo. Finally, since children love sweets, Copa incorporated figs and dates.

Coley said she enjoyed the process of developing the bowl with Copa. When she started working in school cafeterias in 1993, the food was mostly cooked at the schools. But many school lunches today are drawn from standardized USDA recipes. Coley is glad for a return to food cooked at schools, even if it’s more work.

“The most important people are our future, and they deserve the best we can do,” Coley said.

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Alexa Reyes-Garcia, 5, holds a “Durham Bowls” sticker she received with her Cuban pork and rice bowl, a new lunch menu item at George Watts Elementary School, on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019. Julia Wall jwall@newsobserver.com

Tawan Alexander, a kindergarten assistant teacher at George Watts Elementary, said students can be skeptical of foods they don’t recognize, but are usually interested to try new dishes.

“I think it tastes good because it has all this stuff in it, and it tastes really sweet,” kindergartener Demani Dargan-Juarez, 5, said of the dish.

One of the ways DPS is trying to incorporate local ingredients is through a partnership with Farmer Foodshare, a Durham business that helps connect local farmers with NC markets for their produce, and provided the sweet potatoes that accompanied the bowl. Another local group, Firsthand Foods, sourced the pork for Copa and Coley’s bowl from NC farmers. Co-owner Tina Levy says that this is the first local, fresh meat in DPS schools.

Hopping praises DPS’s willingness to innovate.

“The fact that they’re willing to take this on despite the way the federal children’s nutrition system is structured is a testament to how amazing DPS is,” Hopping said.

Durham Bowls hopes to develop 10 more recipes next year and build a library of recipes to share with others across the state.

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Shelbi Polk reports on K-12 education in Durham and Orange Counties for the News & Observer. She attended Texas A&M University and followed the crowds to Raleigh in 2018.