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.
Ray hopes that the Yum-o model will extend to the rest of the country.
"The school food program here is really setting the bar," Ray said. " They are bringing in apples, precut or whole. They are bringing in as many products as they can from small local growers, and they are putting a stamp on it. They are saying this is from New York state and we are proud of it. They are offering food for breakfast and lunch to these kids, and they are offering food 12 months a year, through the summer months."
Healthy Changes, Step by Step
Goldstein and others at SchoolFood have slowly phased in the healthy changes to the kids' diets.
"We only serve whole wheat bread. Initially, we had to phase it in. For instance, on a hamburger or a sandwich, the top bun was white bread, and the bottom was wheat and then we got the kids used to that taste profile and we moved them over to whole wheat," he said.
As far as healthy snacks, apple slices have been popular among students, according to Goldstein, more popular he points out than apples.
"Kids are used to opening a bag, they like the tactile experience and the taste," Goldstein said.
We asked a group of third graders from P.S. 89 about that: do they like sliced apples better, and why: "For wiggly teeth, it's much easier to eat," one third-grade girl told "Nightline." "And there's no seeds."
Even vending machines have been revamped according to new guidelines. Kids who want a coke and chips for lunch are now out of luck.
Ray explained that overhauling the quality of school food is at the heart of making healthier kids become healthier adults.
"The only chance you have, whatever neighborhood the kids come from, school is where it's at," Ray said. "Not only are they going to learn more and have better focus, better personality development, it just puts them in a friendlier frame of mind if the kids have a better diet. But it changes the quality of the rest if that child's life. Being able to appreciate good food and being able to prepare food will improve the quality of the whole rest of your life beyond your health."
Lunch Room Gets Makeover Too
Not only has the food at P.S. 89 been getting a makeover, but so has the staff who prepared pizza lunch and some Ray tacos to sample the day "Nightline" visited.
"We have changed uniforms. We have presented the staff in a different kind of way," Goldstein said. "When we first came here, everyone was wearing a white uniform like a hospital or a prison. The atmosphere wasn't as friendly, but we spent a lot of time working on that because we want to treat our schools and our students like customers. We want to have a friendly atmosphere. We want the food to look nice."
Carmen Cancel, who has worked in school lunch facilities for 17 years, said they've come a long way from the days of canned vegetables.
"Now we have new produce, fresh fruit for the kids, and vegetables and fruit -- everything nice quality," she said. "The kids love them. We try to roast them and use cilantro, chives, give it flavor for the kids."
Chef Mickey Valdez agrees.
And what about Ray's tacos? What does our panel of third graders think about them? An enthusiastic thumbs up.
Ray was delighted.
"I think that when you're cooking for kids and you want to get them excited about nutrition and eating better, the food has got to be exciting because the movement lives and dies with the kids," Ray said. "The kids have to be psyched about it or they are not going to want to eat it in school or at home.
Next, up on Ray's school menu: macaroni and cheese.
"The SchoolFood people just let us know that whole grain pasta has been added to the list. So I think that we're going to do some mac and cheese as our next recipe," she said. "Just making the switch to whole grain pasta, they get fiber, all sources of nutrients, and protein."
Her goals are lofty -- nothing short of changing the future of the country one meal at a time. "Make us healthier from the get-go, and we all wouldn't need such exorbitant health care costs for the rest of our lives. We wouldn't have a lot of the problems that we have," she said. "I just can't imagine that this isn't a larger part of the discussion. Everyone is bickering about you know, whether or not there's this provided for and that. They should be fighting to get the price of broccoli at a reasonable level and make sure all of our children have access to good nutrition."
Ray is calling on others to join in the program and demand tasty, nutritional food for all Americans.
"The next layer is getting through to our representatives, at every level, local and national, saying we demand access to fruits and vegetables in every community in America," she said. "We want in every part of a big city, every part of a remote town, access to affordable, good food. We're America. We are the country of plenty. We certainly have it. We must demand it. We have to demand it."