Healthy food makes for happy chef, students

By Patricia Corrigan, Special to the Jewish Light

Whole grains, milk free of hormones and antibiotics, locally sourced meat, vegetables from the school garden and eggs from chickens on-site all are part of the Bistro Kids Farm-to-Table kosher school lunch program at Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School, which started in 2009. 

A.J. Moll, 38, has served as chef since 2012. 

“Last year in our annual survey, we learned one parent chose our school because of the lunch program,” Moll said. “That’s a real compliment.” 

In place of the prepared lunches, students also may choose an entree salad or a meatless box lunch or, of course, bring lunch from home. 

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Moll is a member of Congregation B’nai Amoona. He first cooked in 1998 while enrolled in a culinary arts and chef training program in the Army. After that, he served as lead cook at Schnucks Markets, and a lead chef and chef manager at a food service company. 

Moll made time recently to talk about cooking for kids. 

What is the most popular food to come out of your kitchen? 

Chocolate chip cookies — but these cookies are made with 51 percent whole wheat flour, local eggs and low sugar. We do a lot of low-sugar desserts. Tomorrow, we’re setting up a yogurt bar for dessert, and the kids can pick out the fruit toppings they like. That’s called a dessert, but it’s healthy food.   

Do the students want seconds on the cookies?

They do, but only fruits and vegetables are unlimited. 

What’s the favorite entrée?

Salad Bar Day is the most popular, because it gives the students so many options. They also really like the macaroni and cheese, made with cheese from a farm in Iowa and whole wheat noodles. Research shows that good nutrition translates into higher test scores. 

Talk a bit about the school garden.

It’s about a quarter of an acre, a teaching garden. We’re always expanding it to teach kids where food comes from and how to grow it. Everything we grow, the kids get to taste. Once a child plants a beet, that child is very willing to try that beet. 

What else grows in the garden?

We grow tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, beans, cauliflower, spinach, broccoli, carrots and radishes. We grow garlic. We also grow herbs, including a ton of mint, oregano, basil and thyme.

Who tends the garden over the summer?

The kids are involved from mid-August to late May, and volunteers work in the garden over the summer. They get to take home some of the food they harvest and some goes to the (Harvey Kornblum) Jewish Food Pantry. In winter, we grow kale. The kids love our kale Caesar salad, and I also make another salad with kale, apples and sweet potatoes.

The kids like kale?

They do. We start with the young children, teaching them to like mashed “potatoes” made with cauliflower. Parents tell us their kids come home and ask for spinach, mushrooms and kale. 

How does healthy food align with Jewish values? 

We have Kashrut, but we also have ethical Kashrut, and healthy food connects children to the Earth. Also, we recycle and we compost. We are committed to repairing the planet. 

Two years ago, fourth-grade students built a large compost bin for the school. Who sorts what goes in the bin and what gets recycled?

The kids sort everything, and because they know how, we’ve heard that many families have now started composting at home.  

You offer cooking classes. Please talk about that.

The kids call it cooking class, but it’s not so much cooking as learning and sampling healthy foods that are new to the kids. Right now I’m introducing the students to jicama. We’ll make jicama slaw.  

What do you like best about your job?

I’ve studied Kashrut, and I like that I get to practice what I learned, and I also like that I get to work in the Jewish community. 

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