Rachael Ray is known for her sunny disposition and the light-hearted joy she brings to the kitchen. And now she's directing her down-home cooking skills and her enormous star power toward a topic she cares deeply about: kids and food. Her new outlet: New York City's public schools.
The school lunch of memory -- heavy on the mystery meat, light on vegetables -- was more like school slop than school lunch. But in an effort to cut down on obesity among American kids and make for healthier living, New York City public schools are cooking something new in the cafeteria. And Ray is at the forefront.
Ray's foundation, Yum-o, has partnered with the New York Department of Education to provide healthy, delicious and appealing meals to kids in more than 1,600 public schools in New York City. The TV show host is part of a movement to help reduce the rate of childhood obesity in New York City schools, which is up to a staggering 40 percent.
"Roughly 40 percent of our students are either overweight [or] obese and, we found working with the Health department, that there is a correlation between academic performance and obesity," said Eric Goldstein, chief executive for NYC's Department of Education SchoolFood program.
Ray says she was very impressed with the strides the New York City's public schools were already taking and was delighted to throw her own weight behind the efforts. Besides bringing attention to the movement towards healthier food in school, Ray will contribute menus for the city's 1600 public schools. Her first selection: soft taco with Southwestern roasted chicken, sweet roasted corn, vegetarian "veg-head" beans, steamed broccoli, and a southwest Yum-o ranch sauce.
A whopping 648,121 of Rachael Ray's lunches -- a system wide record -- were served in the city's public schools when the program launched Oct. 26, 2009.
"She is a real star, and that star power is incredible to see. … Everybody wanted to come and meet Rachael Ray," Goldstein said. "And I witnessed it firsthand, with serving meals. We served more meals that day than I can remember in a long, long time."
"Nightline" recently caught up with Ray at P.S. 89 in New York City to discuss why she believes the food served in schools is so important.
"It's an opportunity to really level the playing field, no matter what socioeconomic background a kid comes from," Ray said. "When they are in school they have access -- all of them -- to good nutrition if we the adults provide it for them."
The lunch menu throughout New York City's public schools must adhere to strict nutritional guidelines: no artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners, palm oil or coconut oil can be used; the total fat is not to exceed 30 percent of total calories, saturated fat is not to exceed 10 percent of total calories. But not only must the meals be nutritionally balanced, they must also be produced for a dollar or less a day, which Ray admits is a real challenge.
"With this small amount of money that they have ... they have made such great strides, and I think this will really help with the obesity rates, if we can get great nutrition into every public school coast to coast for breakfast and lunch, " Ray said.
Following nutritional guidelines and value lists for each food offered, and requiring that things like low-fat and fat-free milk, whole wheat bread and rolls are served, the hope among educators and specialists is that the rest of the nation will follow New York's lead.