business news in context, analysis with attitude

There is a terrific story in the Toronto Globe and Mail about a high school in Stratford, Ontario, where local officials have decided to find out for real if students can be persuaded to eat healthier food rather than the fried foods more familiar to them.

In one corner, there’s the school cafeteria, serving French fries, garlic fingers, pizza, chicken burgers and hamburgers.

In the other, the Screaming Avocado Café, opened by the school’s culinary arts teacher to compete with the cafeteria, and serving such things as “Moroccan braised lamb shanks with vegetable couscous salad, salmon in phyllo with Swiss chard, lasagna al forno with béchamel sauce, tempeh and vegetable chili.”

The Screaming Avocado serves as classroom, cafeteria and kitchen, and is the brainchild of chef-turned-teacher Paul Finkelstein, who believes fervently that good food marketed well not only offers students a healthier alternative, but actually can be the preferred choice.

The foodservice company that runs the cafeteria says that it is trying to get healthier, but that it has to serve certain kinds of foods because that’s what kids want.

“Mr. Finkelstein shakes his head,” writes the Globe and Mail. “He sees students at the vending machines getting a can of pop and cookies for breakfast. He says it is unfortunate cash-strapped schools have little choice but to turn to machines and food contracts as a source of revenue. He dreams of the day he can take over the cafeteria, and serve up nutritious meals.

“But for now ‘we're giving them the option, and some are taking the option. Nobody has to come down if they don't want to,’ he said.”
KC's View:
There’s no question that for the moment, the traditional cafeteria food is outselling the Screaming Avocado…just as there’s no question not only where we’d rather eat and where we’d like our kids to eat. (The prices are said to be about the same.)

This is a terrific experiment, to see if Finkelstein can make Moroccan braised lamb shanks palatable to a Big Mac generation. It will help, we think, that he’s also teaching cooking classes, using the Screaming Avocado to let kids cater parties and get some gratification for their efforts, and engaging in some viral marketing.

But we suppose that the issue that we have to decide as a culture is why, in an academic setting designed to train and inspire the mind and spirit, you’d ever want to be offering French fries and macaroni and cheese. It can’t improve their diets, it can’t help their brains, and, comfort food though it may be, it really can’t raise their spirits.

Would it be better if we lived in a world where kids would always make the best choices, and where junk food was less desired than lasagna al forno with béchamel sauce? Of course.

It seems to us that it is our responsibility as parents, as adults, to make some of these choices for our kids. It’ll be culture shock in the beginning…but eventually, maybe, if we stick to our guns and our vegetable couscous, we’ll end up with smarter generations with more sophisticated and intelligent tastes in food.

Which, by the way, would be a home run for a supermarket industry that would have a food-oriented population to which it could market unique products and services.