Marc Vetri's Eatiquette Provides a Fresh Perspective on School Lunch

Marc Vetri's Foundation school lunch program
By Nicholas DiUlio

It’s early May on West Clearfield Street in North Philadelphia, bright and crisp with an occasional breeze rustling the freshly greened trees and grasses outside St. James Middle School. Class periods are shifting and the sound of children shuffling between rooms and along campus sidewalks mingles with the wind. But move through this scene of seasonal awakening, walk through the front door of the 160-year-old church, and follow the muffled sound of jubilant music coming from the basement kitchen down below. It’s there that you’ll find an entirely different transformation taking place—one school lunch at a time.

Standing in the center of a modest kitchen outfitted with gleaming industrial cooking appliances, chef Deborah Anthony is hard at work methodically wrapping whole-wheat tortillas around an enticing filling of sweet potatoes, cumin, jack cheese and fresh red beans that have just been sautéed in onions and chipotle peppers. Anthony has to make 95 burritos before lunch begins in less than an hour. Stevie Wonder comes from a small speaker somewhere in a corner, adding an air of celebration to the task.

“You should have seen this place a year ago,” says Anthony, gesturing to her domain while smiling at her chef’s table and its bounty of glistening beans resting in a large metal bowl. “It was a hole. A dungeon. When I saw it I thought, ‘Oh my god, what did I do?’”

Last summer Anthony didn’t know what was in store for her future. She was 55 and had been working as a cook at Philadelphia’s Girard College for nearly two decades. But she had grown a little restless of the routine. Something had to change.

“I needed to move on and try something new, but I was a little scared because I didn’t know what that was,” says Anthony, recalling how she even briefly flirted with the idea of moving to London with a friend in order to open a chain of beauty salons. “But then I found out St. James needed a chef, so I decided to go out on a limb and try this. And you know what? It’s the best move I ever made.”

And that’s because this wasn’t just your run of the mill cafeteria gig. This was Eatiquette, a transformative school lunch initiative co-founded three years ago by famed Philadelphia chef and restaurateur Marc Vetri.

Marc Vetri Foundation school lunch

The program stemmed from a fairly obvious and dire imperative: School children needed more from their daily lunches than overly processed, frozen meals warmed in a veritable microwave and served in an impersonal assembly line. To that end, Eatiquette sought to replace this approach with fresh, from-scratch meals comprising fruits, vegetables, and quality meats prepared by skilled chefs like Anthony. Food is served family-style at round tables brimming with conversation and community. It’s healthy, holistic and nutritious. And it’s not only nourishing students’ bodies but also opening their minds to an awareness of food that they weren’t getting anywhere else.

To some the idea might sound simple, even a little obvious. But administrators, teachers, and parents alike have hailed the application (and results) of Eatiquette as radically transformative.

“For me, this has been one of my top priorities. A huge need for us,” says St. James principal Laura Hoffman-Dimery whose Episcopal middle school serves the challenged Allegheny West section of North Philadelphia and became the 11th Philadelphia school to adopt Vetri’s delightfully radical approach to lunchtime in the summer of 2014. “You hear about how a good diet can help kids with things like energy levels and attentiveness in the afternoon. And I’ll tell you, this has made a huge difference. You can see it in everything from the kids’ attention levels to the fact they no longer have that afternoon, post-lunch crash. It’s amazing. Life changing, really.”

A couple of years ago I had a student ask me about this ‘orange stuff’ we were serving. It was cantaloupe, and he’d never had it before.

Make no mistake—Marc Vetri didn’t have to do this.

As the overseer of a restaurant empire that includes Osteria, Vetri, Amis, and Alla Spina, the venerated Philadelphia native and James Beard Foundation honoree is one of the most successful chefs in the country. His name is synonymous with authentic fine dining and his culinary devotees are ubiquitous from coast to coast. So why go to the trouble of trying to radically transform the way children eat in school?

“That’s what everyone asks themselves, isn’t it? Who are you? What do you want with your life? Do you have a need to do something important or not? I don’t know why, but this all just kind of made sense to me,” says Vetri. “It’s not enough to just run some restaurants and simply get on with life. For me, it was necessary to do this.”

That necessity was born from a specific experience he had back in 2009, when a friend named Michael Rouse asked Vetri for advice on how to feed the children attending Rouse’s annual nonprofit after-school mentorship program called Dream Camp, which is aimed at low-income children and runs for five weeks in July on Girard College’s campus.

The timing was perfect. Just one year prior, Vetri and business partner Jeff Benjamin had launched the nonprofit Vetri Foundation for Children. The foundation began as a way to help support Alex’s Lemonade Stand, a charity that supports children’s cancer research, but Vetri was looking to expand its reach and influence to help children understand the relationship between good food and a healthy lifestyle.

“We’re starting to see the results of poor eating habits and what comes from not understanding food,” says Vetri. “And the amazing thing is you can learn everything through food. You can learn history. You can learn math. You can learn science. You can learn culture. You can learn etiquette. You can engage in social studies. It’s limitless really. So our thinking was, ‘Hey, let’s invest in our youth and let everyone have a fair shake.’”

Marc Vetri Foundation

Dream Camp was an ideal breeding ground for the eventual far-reaching scope of this ambition. Rather than simply advise Rouse on how to cook for the children, Vetri—along with partner/chef Jeff Michaud—decided to volunteer his time and actually prepare the meals himself.

That summer the camp’s culinary atmosphere was instantly transformed and reinvigorated. Frozen, overly processed menu items were replaced with from-scratch delights that included things like vibrant salads, roasted chicken, sautéed shrimp, and berries in cream. This might sound expensive, but Jennifer Wheeler, director of programs for the Vetri Foundation, explained that the National School Lunch Program, through the Pennsylvania Department of Education, provides schools with a reimbursement for each student eating a government compliant meal. “This is how most schools pay for their food service,” she says. “There are various standards that need to be met daily and weekly for breakfast, lunch, or snack. We work within the parameters of the National School Lunch program - similar to a food service management company - to keep the meal prices on par with the reimbursement per each student per each school.”

The food itself was just one step in the camp’s gastronomic evolution. Vetri also decided to drastically alter the way lunch is served and how it is consumed.

Militaristic lunch lines and random, free-for-all seating were replaced by round tables, assigned seats, and family style dining – the tables, chairs and smallwares all donated by the foundation. What’s more, one camper from each table was chosen each day to serve as “table captain.” Donning a white chef’s coat, each table captain arranged the place settings, filled the water glasses, and collected the day’s food from the kitchen to serve it to his or her gathered peers. And just before the eating commenced, the day’s chef—typically Vetri or Michaud—would come out and excitedly explain to the children what was on their plates.

“We wanted the kids to be doing more than just eating lunch. We wanted them to be dining,” recalls Vetri. “There’s a lot to this approach that’s important. It’s almost like an honor to be a table captain, to get to wear the white chef’s coat, to get to set the table up. It’s a neat thing the kids take pride in. And I think it breeds a level of respect, because everything is already set, the chef walks out and announces what you’re eating. And then you eat. You interact. You share. It’s how you are supposed to eat at your family table. How can there not be life lessons there?”

After Dream Camp wrapped up that summer, Vetri and his partners realized they had their template for an impending lunchtime revolution, and it’s this model that currently serves as the foundation of every school currently enrolled in Eatiquette.

“Once we started really looking into school lunches, we were disgusted with people’s perception of it,” says Vetri. “No one was making any effort to make a healthier lunch. The kids are not being nourished. They’re not being taught about food. There’s less and less and less effort and money heading into the federal school lunch program. And it’s almost like our children are just a second thought. And it’s obviously led to serious health issues. So once we started peeling back the layers, we came to realize that we had to start doing our part to change things.”

Marc Vetri

Vetri’s passion for the entire eating experience has its roots in his Philadelphia childhood, where family meals played an integral role in understanding the importance of community, conversation, and culinary diversity.

“I had a childhood where I was lucky enough to be surrounded by many different cultures,” says Vetri. “Whether it was food inspired by my father’s side from Italy or my mother’s Jewish traditions. And we ate together. We had big Sunday dinners with gravy and macaroni. And we always came together around the kitchen table. Those times were really important on so many levels.”

Looking back on his family’s deep appreciation for food and mealtime, it now seems inevitable that Vetri would go on to make his mark on America’s culinary landscape. But owning a cadre of celebrated restaurants wasn’t always the plan.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in marketing and finance from LeBow in 1990, Vetri moved out to Los Angeles to study music, all the while working as a cook at various restaurants in the city, including a life-changing stint at Wolfgang Puck’s then-newly minted Granita in Malibu.

“I assume everyone has these moments,” Vetri wrote in a 2013 Huffington Post article about his time working for Puck. “They are little moments throughout your life that change you. They are the moments that define you. If you connect them, they seem like your DNA, or the woven fabric of your life. I have had many of them, however, none seemingly as important as this one. It was that very day that I thought to myself: ‘Maybe I can do this thing.’”

By the time he was 25, Vetri decided his future was in food, not music. He had an opportunity to travel to Italy and he took it. There, half a world away, Vetri was truly awakened to his talents as a chef and the myriad possibilities inherent in his passion for cuisine. A few years later Vetri decided it was time to open his own restaurant, and in 1998 he returned to his home city and christened the eatery that now bears his name.

Yes, I’m a chef, but owning a restaurant you have to know marketing, you have to know finance. So it’s not one of those things where you can say, ‘Oh, well he didn’t use his degree.’ Of course I did! It’s been invaluable.

And while he attributes so much of his success to these formative restaurant experiences, he also acknowledges the same for his time at Drexel, where he often gives lectures and serves as an adjunct faculty member.

“Obviously, marketing and finance helps in everything,” says Vetri. “Yes, I’m a chef, but owning a restaurant you have to know marketing, you have to know finance. So it’s not one of those things where you can say, ‘Oh, well he didn’t use his degree.’ Of course I did! It’s been invaluable. I think the whole culture of college life helps make you into a more rounded individual.”

To ask those who know him well, one comes away with a portrait of a man who is indeed rounded.

“Marc is one of the most genuine people I know,” says Vetri Foundation director Kelly Herrenkohl. “He’s honest, and he lives what he thinks is important. And when Marc comes to you and says, ‘Let’s change the world,’ he actually means it. He has big visions, and to feel like he has some type of platform in Philadelphia to influence the lives of more than 4,500 kids we serve each week with quality food—that’s really important to him. There are a thousand different things this city needs, and his thing is food. That’s what he’s best at. And he feels like if he can make a difference with what he does best, well, why not?”

To be sure, the difference Vetri has been trying to impart on his city—and, hopefully, the country—is no small feat. According to Herrenkohl, students from low-income neighborhoods get about 50 percent of their calories from what they eat in school. What’s more, 65 percent of Philadelphia’s schools don’t even have kitchens that are equipped to cook nutritionally sound meals. Instead they’ve got warming ovens that can do little more than heat pre-packaged meals. The landscape is, in a word, grim. But, says Vetri, it doesn’t have to be.

In addition to Eatiquette, the Vetri Foundation has also drummed up several other food-related initiatives, including My Daughter’s Kitchen, which teaches kids how to cook affordable, healthy meals from scratch, and Building 21, a weekly culinary class taught by Vetri that aims to educate high school students on everything from the importance of local farming to myriad general kitchen skills.

“Right now, folks who live in certain areas of this city don’t have access to fresh vegetables or quality meats. They have access to the food from corner stores filled with potato chips and sodas loaded with sugar. How will they learn about anything else? They’re not getting an education from their lunches. They’re not finding it in their neighborhoods. It’s less expensive to go buy a bag of Doritos and a soda than it is to buy an apple and a bottle of water. So why would you even think about eating healthier? Add to it that you don’t even know that the latter one is healthier, and you’re really in trouble. So it’s all about food education, eating right, and an overall pursuit of knowledge.”

Marc Vetri Foundation school lunch

Back at St. James, lunch is ready to be served. With the students quietly sitting at their respective tables, Anthony emerges from the kitchen and announces the afternoon’s menu with the gleeful glint of one who comes bearing gifts. When she’s finished, the students pause for prayer before the table captains commence with serving, a look of pride stretched across each of their faces.

Even though she’s watched this scene unfold countless times, Herrenkohl delights in seeing the children take joy in a lunch they would otherwise be denied.

“It’s really amazing when you see kids trying fruits or vegetables that they may have never even seen before and realizing they are delicious,” says Herrenkohl. “A couple of years ago I had a student ask me about this ‘orange stuff’ we were serving. It was cantaloupe, and he’d never had it before. He loved it. This is all really pretty incredible.”

Much work remains for Vetri and his namesake foundation. Next year he hopes to add at least two or three more schools to the roster of Eatiquette participants with the hopes that the work being done in Philadelphia will continue to spread across the country.

“It’s not so much an investment in this city as it is an investment in our youth,” says Vetri. “What I hope is that we cannot only change the way people think about school lunch, but also fundamentally change the landscape of how our children eat.”