With Parents' Support, a Chelsea School Goes Healthy

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He plants lettuce in the garden, sells organic food at a farmers' market, often eats vegetarian and takes cooking classes.

Adrian Allannic, a third grader, has learned the lessons of healthy eating at home, and he gets to carry out his healthy habits at his school, Public School 11 William T. Harris.

A growing number of affluent parents and a motivated principal have brought a new emphasis on fresh foods to the school of almost 700 students in Chelsea, Manhattan.

Many schools in New York City have taken steps to provide healthier foods for students in their cafeterias, but P.S. 11 has gone further than most.

A corner of the school’s playground is a vegetable garden. There’s a salad bar at lunch. Students learn how to cook in school. Third graders help sell organic vegetables to the neighbors on the sidewalk in front of school.

“It’s fun getting to look at what foods we will have,” Adrian said. Visit Adrian and his classmates at the market:

Adrian never ate cafeteria food because his mother packed him a healthy lunch. But in September a graduate of the French Culinary Institute became the chef in the school's revamped cafeteria, and Adrian has been buying school lunch.

His mother, Rica Allannic, is a cookbook editor who is on the PTA's food committee. His father, Cyrille Allannic, is the former executive sous chef at Daniel, the French restaurant on the Upper East Side.

It’s not just that they appreciate good food; they want their son to eat healthy food, like fresh vegetables and whole cuts of meat. And they weren’t alone in encouraging it at P.S. 11.

“This is something we were pushing for pretty hard," Mrs. Allannic said. "This is the first year my son is having school lunch because the foods are minimally processed and there’s none of that 'pink slime' or ground meat.”

The Allannic family is part of a shift in population in Chelsea that has driven up family income. Median family income was $154,000, according to the 2010 census, up from $66,000 a decade earlier. Consequently, the portion of lower-income students at P.S. 11 dropped to about 40 percent in 2011 from more than 70 percent in 2006. Take a look at how Chelsea's median family income has outpaced it in the rest of the city:

The neighborhood has not just seen wealthier families. It has also seen more families, which has doubled the number of students at P.S. 11 in the last five years. And as the families changed, so did the menu, with vegetarian chili and curried chickpea salad cooked from scratch replacing french fries and frozen pizza.

Not everyone at the school liked the changes. With more vegetables needing chopping, one cafeteria worker left, disgruntled that prep time had increased, said Bob Bender, the principal of P.S. 11 for seven years.

The changes in eating and growth in food-related programs at P.S. 11 were largely a result of a more active PTA. The PTA raised about $260,000 in the 2011-12 school year, up from $93,000 a decade ago.

And parents put their newly raised money where their children’s mouths are, spending roughly $70,000 of their budget for healthy food programs over the last five years, up from a couple of thousand dollars a year just a few years ago.

The school is also supported by a nonprofit organization, created by parents, called P.S. 11 Programs Inc. Through it, parents pay directly for enrichment activities -- including many of the food-related activities -- at the school. P.S. 11 Programs Inc., raised $420,000 in 2009-10, the last year for which public records could be found.

Together the PTA and P.S. 11 Programs Inc. support the school's healthy eating efforts, including things like a year’s supply of olive oil costing about $1,000, cooking classes for children, and $7,000 in expenses related to a farmers' market run by third graders (the market, unlike those at some other schools, is not used as a fund-raiser).

Debbie Osborne runs P.S. 11 Program Inc. and directs after-school programs at the school. Ms. Osborne, who lives in Chelsea, volunteered part time for many years while her son attended the school 15 years ago.

She remembers that improving school lunch was not possible then. Some parents wanted changes to menus and habits, but didn’t have the resources, or the support from school leaders, to achieve them.

“There was no vehicle for change,” Ms. Osborne said. “It was a closed case.”

Now, with more than 500 children in her recess, after-school, farmers’ market, cooking classes and other P.S. 11 Programs Inc. activities, Ms. Osborne works full time from an office in the cafeteria and was paid $95,000 in 2009-10.

In her efforts to bring healthy habits to P.S. 11, she came upon the Wellness in the Schools program. The organization targets schools with poverty rates higher than 70 percent, and P.S. 11 persuaded it to consider the school's poverty rate in previous years. The program agreed, and is charging P.S. 11 $6,000, instead of its usual rate of $25,000.

The program arrived in September, and along with it Cynthia Tommasini, a graduate of the French Culinary Institute, who helped transform P.S. 11's kitchen.

The school needed parents to buy in, too.

“I had to ask the parents for financial support,” Mr. Bender, the principal, said. He encouraged families like the Allannics to buy lunch instead of bringing it in. He added that the school feeds 300 to 400 children a day. However, he said, the Department of Education, which pays for the food, was not happy with that level of participation, and told the school that it needed to improve its tally of served lunches.

“I think if even only one student buys lunch it should be a healthy one,” Mr. Bender said.

The healthy eating program is set to expand at P.S. 11: live chickens are on the way, to be raised on the school playground.

The school, however, will be serving only their eggs.

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this post included incorrect spellings of names in the caption and the body of the post, and has been updated to correct other information, including those related to P.S. 11 Programs, Inc.