Sapphire chef cooks up new program

Chef Azmin Ghahreman lives by several phrases.

"My father taught me to put food on people's table, never take it away," Ghahreman said inside Sapphire Laguna, the restaurant he opened in 2007 on Coast Highway.

That led Ghahreman to start serving free lunches to needy children at Skyview Elementary and Middle School in Orange through Project Hope Alliance, an Orange County nonprofit dedicated to helping educate homeless children. Ghahreman hopes to instill healthy values when it comes to eating and cooking.

He kicked off the new program Thursday. Ghahreman has also pledged $100,000 by the end of the year for Project Hope Alliance.

"If kids sit on empty stomachs, or consume a lot of sodas, chips and corn syrup, that is not good," he said.

Each Thursday, Ghahreman feeds 70 children at Skyview. Thursday's menu included chicken chow mein stir fry with carrots, peas and green beans.

Jennifer Friend, executive director of Project Hope Alliance in Orange, sought Ghahreman's help to support the organization's overall mission of educating Orange County's 28,000 homeless children, she said.

"Children can't learn if they don't have the proper food," Friend said. "Chef Azmin is a true visionary in how children eat at school."

Ghahreman, 52, first began his mission of educating children on food with the Sapphire at School program in 2007. The program partners with Orange County schools to educate children on healthy eating by providing restaurant quality meals and snacks. For Ghahreman, small tweaks such as substituting wheat bread for white and avoiding dairy products with added hormones make a big difference.

"Eat food that comes from plants, not food made in plants [factories]," Ghahreman said.

Ghahreman works with pediatricians and dietitians to create the meals for Sapphire at School, which serves 4,200 students and faculty at seven O.C. schools, with an eighth school in the works. He emphasizes diets filled with fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

Sometimes the only meals students receive are at school, Friend said. Project Hope spends $100,000 each year to transport children from 29 county motels and shelters to and from the school, Friend said.

"If we don't pick them up, they don't go to school," she said.

Ghahreman, who has four children ages 2 to 10, credits his penchant for service to his father, Mohamad Vali.

"If you look down the street and the 10 closest neighbors are doing well, you move on," Ghahreman said. But if the neighbors closest to you need help, help them, he said.

Ghahreman is involved with numerous charities. He helped raise $500,000 for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and supports the Gang Reduction Intervention Program, a partnership between the Orange County District Attorney's office, Sheriff's Department and local police departments. The program provides gang prevention strategies to at-risk youth, families and communities.

Ghahreman stresses portion control and enjoying food, not rushing through a meal.

"We don't smell [food] anymore," Ghahreman said.

Ghahreman is hoping the community can help him meet his $100,000 pledge. He already received his first donation: $1,000.

Friend expects the community to step up.

"The Orange County community is so generous," she said. "They want to be part of the solution."

Twitter: @AldertonBryce

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