By Asia Matthews
Black bean cookies, squash fries, and maybe even coconut-raisin rice are all menu options landing in Princeton public school cafeterias in the upcoming academic year. These new healthy-sounding treats, provided by the Nutri-Serve Food Management Inc., are meant to put a new twist on old school lunch favorites.
These changes are being implemented by Stephen Cochrane, 53, who took over as superintendent of the Princeton school district in January 2014. Less than a year into his tenure, Cochrane is already taking big steps to help kids internalize healthy habits. When the district’s last food service contract expired, he seized the opportunity to promote more positive nutritional habits.
Cochrane works with a Wellness Committee to develop ideas for all six Princeton schools. He believes that the proposed menu changes will help sustain the system’s reputation as “the lighthouse district of the nation.”
According to Cochrane, healthy cafeteria options “support physical well-being and intellectual learning” for every student. He said that it is worthwhile and important for students to not only learn about food, but to know where the food they eat comes from. Because health classes are required for the K-12 public school system in Princeton, Nutri-Serve will allow the “cafeteria to be an extension of the classroom.”
Plans for the new school year also include school-based gardens, which will allow students to understand where their food comes from and emphasize wholesome food choices.
Cochrane also hopes that the new menu will entice more students to eat school-provided lunches. Unlike those in the rest of the country, Princeton school lunch periods last only about 30 minutes, and Cochrane estimates that of the 1500 students at Princeton High School, just 9 percent eat school lunch. To fix this, Cochrane plans to introduce salad, fruit and sandwich bars to the school, alongside mobile applications for students who want pre-order their lunch.
He also wants to launch a website or mobile application that bridges “the connection between school and home” and allows parents of all economic standings to become involved in their child’s eating habits. “Schools can never limit what parents provide, but hopefully influence them,” he said. “Parents want the best and food is one way.”
Yet above all, Cochrane leads by example. The superintendent has been a cyclist for nearly 30 years and lives a healthy lifestyle at home. He describes his kitchen as a “food laboratory” where he and his vegan wife experiment with creative, healthy dishes. Some of their creations may one day make it to the school menus, along with dishes suggested by parents from the community. Essentially, Cochrane said the new food program will help them answer the question, “How do we help the students conquer and care for the world?”
One of the answers, it seems, is to expand their taste boundaries. “It’s not just about food service,” Cochrane said. “It’s about learning and relative understanding of different cultures, it’s about equity.”