All About Food: On a mission to improve the school lunch menu

It seems that every time we turn around chef Azmin Ghahreman of Sapphire is involved in something new. This time it's Every Child is My Child, a school lunch program. As the father of three young children, he was inspired by the Obama administration's focus on better nutrition for schoolchildren to get involved in the lunch programs at the schools his children attend "” St. Anne's and St. Margaret's.

Eschewing the usual diet of starchy, packaged and processed fare that is partly responsible for the epidemic of obesity in this country, he prepares menus based on the Mediterranean diet with its balance of protein, whole grains, vegetables, fruits, dairy and healthy oils. Ghahreman grew up spending time on his family's farms giving him an early understanding of growing food naturally and an appreciation for clean pure flavors.

Of course, he realizes that it is a challenge to get children to change the way they eat. His team worked closely with a registered dietitian, pediatric medical specialists as well as parents and children to get their input. As we learned from Debra Appel of the Laguna Beach Unified School District, getting children weaned away from unhealthy choices is a slow process but it can be done, for example, her success with the salad bar at Top of the World Elementary School.

Ghahreman began in the spring of 2009 by launching a program of hot lunches, a la carte breakfast and lunch selections as well as healthy snacks for hungry St. Anne students. He was able to do this because his restaurant and catering business operates three kitchens and has a fleet of refrigerated delivery trucks and vans that deliver food made fresh daily, for same-day consumption.

His commissary kitchen in Irvine provides food for 800 kids. Knowing full well from his experience with his children that each one wants something different, he provides a range of choices every day. Each lunch meal is craftily packed with a daily healthy snack, a choice of organic milk, spring water or juice, and one of two different entrées: a very healthy one such as turkey Bolognese with whole wheat pasta or a more familiar one like pepperoni pizza.

A la carte selections include: breakfast burritos, salads, sandwiches, wraps and, at St. Ann's (where there is a kitchen on site), all natural beef burgers cooked to order by school staff. The two daily entrées can also be ordered a la carte and include such choices as beef Stroganoff, herb-baked chicken with brown rice, shepherd's pie with peas and carrots, or barbecued franks and beans.

Ghahreman has an online service for parents in which they can set up an account and pre-order their children's meals from a monthly menu. The complete hot lunch costs about $6.

Kids may also draw from this account to order their own meals and this information is then passed on to the parents so they may monitor what their children are eating. Modern technology allows the children to access their account with a finger ID. Parents can also make special requests such as "no more burgers this week."

Children with particular dietary needs or allergies are catered to as well. He provides menus for those who are vegetarians, diabetics, lactose intolerant or have celiac disease. There are no nuts or nut oils in any of his cooking. All his dressings, salsas, etc. are made fresh and they use ketchup without cane sugar. Nutritional facts are available upon request for everything he serves.

St. Ann's Headmaster Randy Adams says that the program has received a very enthusiastic response.

"All of our students and parents have been wowed by his fresh and flavorful menu selections," he said.

Graduating seniors have commented that one of things they will miss the most is the great food from Sapphire.

Ghahreman is now also delivering health conscious food to St. Margaret's Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano where his son is a student. The school is near San Juan Capistrano's Ecology Center, which has two acres of land and several greenhouses. He is working with this wonderful center to help develop a program that will enable kids to learn about germinating, planting, watering and composting so they can understand where food comes from besides the supermarket.

As founder and head administrator of Every Child Is My Child, Ghahreman works closely with school officials and parents, setting up meetings to get feedback as well as to plan for future programs. In the offing are farm and purveyor visits for families as well as seminars on food shopping for budget conscious, healthy home meal preparation. Furthermore he wants to give parents ongoing information about new products and trends in the areas of nutrition, ecology and locavorism.

This ambitious chef with his seemingly boundless energy also has plans to implement his school-dining concept in other nearby communities and schools. He would especially like to bring his program to Laguna Beach if he has the opportunity.

He told us that as a boy, his father would say to him at bedtime, "Put food on people's table." His own motto, that he tells his children every night is, "The sky is not the limit."


ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ owned A La Carte for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at themarkos755@yahoo.com

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