Eat Your Heart Out

Eat Your Heart Out
Eat Your Heart Out
By Zeeshan Aleem '04

The following food is on my plate: tender Thai- style ground beef and basil, sesame-ginger eggplant, sautéed snap peas, and fluffy jasmine rice, topped with scallions, crispy onions, lime wedges, and tamari sauce.

No, I’m not sitting in a hot new Thai restaurant on 14th Street. I’m sitting in my old high school cafeteria.

It’s difficult to overstate how bewildering it is to eat in Sidwell Friends’ cafeteria today, an experience I had the pleasure of partaking in during a visit to campus on a crisp afternoon in February. Back in my day, it was a place for serving bland rations. Since then, it has transformed into a culinary wonder world, whipping up healthy, delicious, and downright exciting dishes every day.

While my memories of Sidwell Friends are fond, my memories of its cafeteria are not. The staff was always professional, courteous, and warm. But the food, prepared under the direction of the catering behemoth Aramark, left much to be desired. I recall soggy pasta, rice that tasted like cardboard, under- salted meat, and a sad, solitary salad bar. I was even a little skeeved out by crowd favorites like pizza and chicken patties, which felt oddly dehydrated and questionably heated.

I surveyed several students in my class year (2004) and a few years below, and their feelings were similar. A few alumni mentioned being unsettled by the cold frittatas—one said he was moved to write a haunting poem about them for English class. One alum told me that she subsisted entirely on peanut butter and honey sandwiches from the sandwich bar because she was never interested in the hot fare from the kitchen. Another former Sidwellian described being so traumatized by the tater tots that he could never eat them again.

I never necessarily minded it much. Teenagers are famously ravenous and will eat anything you place in front of them. Unappealing school lunches are a classic rite of passage and a staple of American pop culture. And having transferred into Sidwell Friends in 5th grade from Landon, where the food was excellent when I attended, I convinced myself that Sidwell’s merely serviceable cafeteria food was due to its Quaker emphasis on simplicity.

But things have changed. A lot. In the summer of 2007, Sidwell Friends changed its caterer from Aramark to Meriwether Godsey. Meriwether Godsey was a far smaller, more attentive company, and it revolutionized Sidwell’s standard cafeteria fare almost overnight. The cafeteria now operates under the direction of multiple culinary-school-trained chefs and serves gourmet-style food that’s fresh, mostly made from scratch, and locally sourced when possible. It places tremendous emphasis on variety, whether through its three fully loaded salad bars, its vegetarian-and vegan-friendly alternatives to its main dishes, or a regular rotation of cuisines from around the world.

The result is that the cafeteria has become another source of renown for Sidwell Friends that almost rivals the reputation of its education. In 2014, HuffPost described it as the “best school lunch in America.” “Cuisines you’d never dream of show up on the menu here, such as an entire lunch of Brazilian delicacies like feijoada, caldo verde soup, all-natural chicken with coconut milk, and mango and pineapple with lime and mint,” Huffpost gushed. News of the quality of the food has traveled so far that it has even been a lightning rod for media hit jobs (“The School Lunches Malia and Sasha Eat vs. The Crap Michelle Obama Has Foisted on America,” read one 2014 screed from The Daily Caller.)

Remarkably, dining has become part of Sidwell’s educational experience—yet another way the School can help raise a cohort of kids to be more conscientious citizens.

The lunches are so exquisite now that teachers are known to take photos of them and brag to their teacher friends about them. The quality of lunches is touted as a real perk for becoming an employee at the School. One current sophomore even told me that the reputation of the cafeteria factored into his decision to come to Sidwell Friends. He apparently found out that the food was extraordinary from his fellow students at Green Acres before he even stepped foot on Sidwell’s campus; when I asked how they knew, he said he no idea, but that the Sidwell Friends cafeteria had taken on mythic status.

As I wandered the cafeteria speaking to students and catching up with faculty, I was initially filled with envy for the quality of the food the kids all got to devour. They don’t know how good they have it! I lamented. I even found my inner-monologue sounding like a much older person than I am: These kids are missing out on an important character-building exercise, I grumpily told myself.

But that moment quickly passed. It is always a good thing to eat well. By which I mean: eating healthily, eating with joy, eating with attention to where the food came from and how it affects the world. On all scores, Sidwell Friends students are eating well in their cafeteria. Remarkably, dining has become part of Sidwell’s educational experience—yet another way the School can help raise a cohort of kids to be more conscientious citizens.

In 2005, Richard Swindell, the director of business operations at Sidwell Friends, noticed a strange problem in the mornings. He found that he was experiencing pain in his feet when he woke up, making it painful to walk. Eventually, it occurred to him that his toes were curling up tightly while he slept. It was a stress reaction—and a huge part of that stress was tied to the predicament that he was facing with Sidwell’s cafeteria. 

Dealing with Aramark was a vexing problem. Their attitude toward food wasn’t really a match for Sidwell’s values, and dealing with their management was tricky. Swindell felt that Aramark was a mega-corporation that wasn’t taking a tiny client like Sidwell Friends seriously enough and that it was more preoccupied with bigger clients like universities and stadiums. “We weren’t happy,” Swindell told me. “They didn’t really care.”

Swindell had a vision for how dining services at Sidwell Friends should look: healthy, filled with variety, and fast. (Swindell says that he doesn’t want students in line for more than four minutes, as they need to get in and out of the cafeteria fast between classes.) He also wanted food made from scratch and as locally sourced as possible, so that the food would support the community, involve less transportation, and affect the environment less. He decided to switch catering services in 2007, and Meriwether Godsey turned out to be an excellent fit.

“It’s about the food being really good, so that when they’re there, they don’t even notice it and they’re having fun with their friends and they’re eating well. Because it’s one of the calm times during the day.”

There were immediate signs that the students liked it. Prior to the transition to Meriwether Godsey, there had been Upper School and Middle School student-run food committees that would meet with Swindell and the food-services manager to discuss menus, food quality, and other issues as they arose. After the transition, those committees quickly folded in a matter of months. They no longer had anything to ask for.

“It’s not about making the food the center of their attention,” said Swindell. “It’s about the food being really good, so that when they’re there, they don’t even notice it and they’re having fun with their friends and they’re eating well. Because it’s one of the calm times during the day.”

“What I want is silent perfection,” he added with a laugh, “which is a very Quakerly thing.”

That doesn’t mean that the dining services are above constructive criticism. There’s a place
in the dining hall where students can submit comments. Sometimes they make requests: The cafeteria team rolled out a new Ethiopian menu one day in response to student feedback. Other times, as happened recently, the kids had... thoughts. Several students pointed out that a chicken dish was too salty. Swindell ran the feedback by the kitchen, and the cooks revisited the recipe and agreed. “Students have sway,” he noted. “They don’t have say.” Students can give feedback, but the adults are running the show, making sure that the meals are balanced and healthy. And that operation is run with great care and passion.

Every day, Michael Ackerson, the director of dining services at Sidwell Friends for Meriwether Godsey, wakes up at 4 a.m. By 6:30, he’s on campus for the start of the cafeteria workday. He holds a meeting with his staff in which they go over the day’s agenda. The morning typically entails preparing for the meal of the day and preparing what’s needed in advance to make sure the next day’s meal is ready on time. The first batch of kids come in starting at 10:50 a.m. Then students come in waves for the next couple of periods. By the end of the day, the kitchen has served over 1,000 meals.

When I stopped in at 9 a.m. to meet Ackerson, the kitchen was buzzing. Cooks were stirring huge batches of beef and peas, chopping up fruit for the salad bar, and starting to prepare the next day’s dishes. The salad bar was being stocked, and I discovered in my first pang
of envy that there was one whole cart devoted just to yogurt. The cooking operation runs in a kitchen with two big steel counter surfaces, a pantry, two walk-in coolers, and a bunch of gargantuan cooking tools that defy my vocabulary; it was somehow much smaller than I thought it would be, considering the huge number of meals prepared every day. And yet it all felt very comfortably sized.

Ackerson is fond of pointing out all the small details that make Sidwell’s cafeteria such a stand-out experience. He explained that the granola at the yogurt bar is made in-house, which allows them to make it healthier by controlling the amount of molasses in it, and allows them to avoid nut-allergy concerns. He suggested trying the strawberry/dragon-fruit tea, which was astonishingly good. (He said he hoped to help foster in the students an appreciation for drinks with less sugar, which makes the drinks more cost-effective, and hews closer to a European sensibility toward more lightly sweetened beverages.) He was also eager to point out how Sidwell composts its food waste, which is both better for the environment and helps teach the students about how to be better stewards of the environment themselves.

Ackerson has taken naturally to working at Sidwell Friends in part because of the way he grew up. “My parents were organic gardenin’, hot-pot cookin’, yogurt makin’, tie-dye makin’ parents,” he said. “They weren’t necessarily hippies, but they were of that generation.”

He grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where his mother worked in academia. He even attended a Quaker school, Carolina Friends. At one point, he was interested in pursuing medicine, but when he attended Tulane University in New Orleans, he fell in love with food and the hospitality industry. While he worked in hotels briefly, Ackerson found he preferred working in schools because he liked the K–12 age group and feeling like he’s part of a community, one that goes beyond just a job.

Before joining Sidwell under Meriwether Godsey, Ackerson worked at Sandy Springs Friends School in Maryland. He loved working there and found the job fulfilling. When people asked him if he’d ever leave, he said he only imagined one other place that might attract him: Sidwell Friends. When the opportunity arose, he couldn’t pass it up. “I just feel like I get the Quaker values,” he said. “I get everything about what the School wants to be and is, and I think that makes it easier to do my job.”

Ackerson said that the level of culinary excellence at Sidwell Friends has been unique. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and I will say that this is the first place where I’ve had teachers take pictures of what they’re having for lunch and brag to their colleagues.”

Ackerson beamed with pride as he noted that other schools in the area have picked up Meriwether Godsey after Sidwell Friends’ new cafeteria reputation spread. Private schools in the area like Bullis, Georgetown Day, and Potomac all sought out the catering company after observing the success of their partnership with Sidwell Friends.

Part of what makes the Meriwether Godsey model unique among catering companies is its emphasis on a strong executive chef and strong food director. The executive chef is culinary-trained and can help set forth a clear vision for what the food-preparation process should look like. At Sidwell Friends, that chef is Sameena Khanna.

Khanna told me that the cafeteria seeks to balance kid-centric meals with adult-centric meals—and often uses the salad bars to help balance things out in case adults or kids are particularly likely to be uninterested in the main dish. Part of that is because it seems only reasonable that the hundreds of adults who eat in the cafeteria have some food that suits their palate. But it’s also about teaching the kids to open up their minds.

“We want to try and teach them that there are different types of foods in different parts of the world.”

“We’re exposing the kids,” she said. “We want to try and teach them that there are different types of foods in different parts of the world. Because once they leave Sidwell, they can’t eat chicken tenders and pizza for the rest of their life.”

Khanna tries to encourage a collaborative and warm atmosphere in the kitchen. The cooks will call on each other to taste-test foods as they make them. They’ve also been allowed to pitch—and name—their own recipes: “Miriam’s chicken tortilla soup” has been a hit. On certain days, the cafeteria has also featured whole menus from staff members’ homelands, like El Salvador.

Khanna encourages her colleagues to think about the work as more than just throwing food into a pot. “I try to instill in them that we should cook the way we cook at home: with care,” she said. “We’re here more than we are at home; we’re essentially seeing each other and these kids more than we see our own family. We should be cooking for them, like they are our family. So it’s just, you know, putting in that TLC.”

Khanna explained that her team doesn’t just focus on cooking with care, but also disposing with care. Food that’s left over is repurposed when it’s possible to do so while maintaining quality—leftover ground beef from nacho day can easily make for a side dish of chili the next day—and food that can’t be reused is either composted or donated. Sidwell Friends works with Food Rescue DC as its donation partner.

Meriwether Godsey’s careful use of resources is also at the heart of how they offer their food at a competitive price point. As Ackerson explained to me, the “fresh-local-scratch” ethos is not just healthier and better for the environment—it’s also less expensive. It saves money to make regular offerings like soup and granola in the kitchen; whipping up food in-house makes it easier to select items carefully and prep cheaper food at scale. And when the price of food has spiked at various points in recent years due to supply-chain issues and inflation, Ackerson has used the mix of the menu to save money strategically. For example, when the price of avocados surged, he focused on rotating in more salads that didn’t rely on the fruit.

All of the students I spoke to, across Middle School and Upper School, seemed to delight in the quality of the food in the cafeteria. Sure, kids will eat pretty much anything, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have preferences, or that they don’t notice and learn from the unique kind of culinary experiences that the cafeteria now offers. They like the classics, like hot dogs and meatballs, but they also like the foods they might otherwise not find in a standard cafeteria, like Thai-style beef or kimchi. (The fully stocked salad bar seems to be a crowd favorite as well.)

The Lower School menu operates under the same menu program as the Middle and Upper School, but it has a different feel. The students are served family-style. And since the customers are younger, their tastes skew simpler: less tolerant of spiciness and more fond of the classics, like spaghetti, pizza, and mac and cheese. But that doesn’t mean they never try anything else: Peruvian chicken with green sauce was a recent hit at the Lower School cafeteria.

A lot of the students across divisions just seemed to appreciate the sheer variety on offer and alternative options. “I have a lot of allergies and I know a lot of people who are gluten-free, but they can make a lot of special meals,” Ariana Tavakkoli ’29, a friendly 6th grader, told me. “And they also have a lot of options at the salad bar.” She also noted that the cafeteria struck a vital balance between “healthy and yummy.”

At one point I ran into Rosa Lopez—a veteran of the Sidwell Friends kitchen who I recognized from my days back in high school. As we caught up, Lopez was quick to rave about how things had changed over the years. How the food had become fresher and tastier and more diverse. I asked her about what it was like eating lunch in the old cafeteria vs. the new one. Before she found it to be a bit of a chore. Now she looked forward to it.

During my day on campus, I was converted from shock to appreciation. Over the course of my meal and my conversations, and at an all-School Meeting for Worship after everyone had eaten, I reflected on how food has an awesome power to connect us—to our bodies and to our communities. Just because we suffered back in my day doesn’t mean anybody else should. These kids just don’t know how good they have it.

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