Garden is one part of RJA’s new approach to food


With garden gloves on, 11 fifth-grade students streamed out of Saul Mirowitz Day School-Reform Jewish Academy on Friday, Aug. 28, ready to take up rakes and hoes and begin to clear a plot of land on the grounds of B’nai El Congregation in Frontenac. Their work was primarily ceremonial — a gardener was to till the soil over the weekend — but the enthusiasm of the students was evident as they set to work.

“We will plant fall crops now — lettuce, spinach, radishes and carrots — and of course we will put in new crops in the spring,” said Stephanie Jansing, a registered dietitian who serves as culinary instructor at the school. “The new curriculum ties together gardening with the fresh food that the children are served in the cafeteria.”

That new curriculum, “Food Is Elementary ©,” is part of Bistro Kids, a farm-to-table school lunch program just introduced at the beginning of the school year. Three days a week, participating students may select from locally sourced, organic, all-natural foods. The fresh foods are prepared on the premises by Chef Monica Watson.


“With Bistro Kids in place, we can be leaders in helping families live healthy lives,” said Cheryl Maayan, head of school. “Modeling healthy eating also carries our Jewish values to the fullest extent, and with recycling and composting, we are teaching our students how to be stewards of the Earth.”

In addition to feeding students, Bistro Kids will invite farmers to the school who will teach students how produce transforms from seed to table and chefs who will guide students and parents in hands-on cooking classes. Jansing will provide lessons in nutrition and healthy food choices.

Kiersten Firquain, a chef from Kansas City, started Bistro Kids three years ago. “I saw what my son was eating at his school, and I knew there had to be a change,” said Firquain. At the time, she was teaching children how to cook, working as a personal chef and catering small events. A school director called to ask Firquain to revamp a lunch program, and today Bistro Kids is in five schools. Firquain says her goal is “to serve healthy lunches to as many kids as possible.”

Asked about the dearth of fresh vegetables in the Midwest in winter, Firquain was ready with a reasoned response. “A locally sourced product doesn’t mean just produce. There are a lot of dairy products, meat, milk, cheese, honey and bread from here as well,” she said. “We emphasize farm-fresh food in season, but we also serve the kids’ favorites–pizza, hamburgers, tacos – with a healthy spin, using organic and antibiotic-free products when possible.”

Eighty-two students, from kindergarten through Grade 5, attend Saul Mirowitz Day School-Reform Jewish Academy, at 11411 N. Forty Drive. Currently, 65 students are participating in Bistro Kids. They pay $4.75 per day for lunch. Additional costs for the chef and the culinary instructor are covered by the school, much of it donated by parents enthusiastic about the program. In time, Maayan hopes to offer Bistro Kids lunches five days a week. Meanwhile, non-participating students bring their own lunches every day and participating students do so on Tuesday and Thursday.

“The kids love the food from Bistro Kids,” said Maayan. “They are trying new things and learning to eat fresh fruit and vegetables. They also enjoy the hot dish that is available. We did not have that before.”

Fifth graders Sara Mateos, 10, and Maya Zuckerman, 10, echoed Maayan’s words. “The food is really good, and it’s the right size,” said Maya, adding, “I like the salad bar.” Fifth grader Matan Gottesman, 10, expressed enthusiasm for the hamburgers, but said he did not care for the pizza with whole-grain crust.

In the cafeteria, youngsters lined up with their washable trays and cloth napkins and made choices from the pint-sized salad bar. Foods available included pineapple, watermelon, oranges, honeydew melon, carrots, celery, cucumbers and macaroni salad. Sun butter, made from sunflower seeds to take the place of peanut butter, was served on wheat bread or wheat pita. Penne noodles in tomato sauce also were available.

Evan Singer, 7, a second grader, spoke in praise of his lunch, especially the watermelon. “I like this food,” he said. “It’s healthier.” When asked if he knew why the food is healthier, he replied, “No, but it is good.”

Watson, the chef, moved around the room offering low-sugar cookie bars made with fresh peaches and blueberries. Watson, who previously worked for the St. Louis Public Schools, knew exactly why the food is healthier. “Everything is made from scratch,” she said, smiling. “This is lunch as it should be.”