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Former Atlanta restaurant chef: Planning school menus is like ‘a big puzzle’

David Bradley moved from Midtown dining to running a school nutrition program

Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School has a wellness policy committed to nutrition education — through classroom instruction; participatory activities, such as taste testings and school gardens; and the meals offered during the school day.

The person most responsible for putting that commitment into action is David Bradley.

In 2014, he was executive chef at Lure, a Midtown seafood restaurant he had opened. His first child was in preschool when he heard through an ANCS parent that the school was looking to hire a chef to run its nutrition program. “I thought, that’s nice, but not for me,” Bradley said.

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Chef David Bradley is the nutrition director for Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School. In addition to planning, preparing and serving meals for the 640 students on the school’s two campuses, he and his team oversee the school garden and the school’s flock of chickens. Photo: Kelley Klein (For the AJC)

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But, after talking with his wife, then pregnant with their second child, and reflecting on his 80-hour work weeks, he decided it was worth learning a little more.

Kari Lovell, ANCS director of finance and operations, had been unhappy with the school’s nutrition program for a while. “We had a caterer, but we were all dissatisfied. I went to the board with a business plan to start our own in-house food service. The minute I met David, I knew he was the right fit,” Lovell said.

For Bradley, the chance to step away from hectic restaurant life also played to his strengths in problem solving. “I’d be able to spend more time with my family. The pay was not as good, but the gain in quality of life was enough to make that worthwhile. And, I liked that I could put my fingerprints on the program, on how we would set up the kitchen and the system, and I liked their focus on local foods.”

Kimberly Della Donna, director of Farm to School for Georgia Organics, sees hiring chefs to run school nutrition programs as an emerging trend. “Chefs are teaching and inspiring others on their teams, and in the school nutrition community,” she said.

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Preparing breakfast and lunch from scratch means hours of prep. Here, Foster Deck (rear) and Lori McKay peel the bushels of roasted sweet potatoes needed for a Southern-style vegetable plate in a school lunch last year. Photo: Kelley Klein (For the AJC)

The transition from restaurant to school wasn’t easy. That first summer, Lovell and Bradley spent a lot of time together. Both had to become certified as school nutrition directors, a program that requires coursework in nutrition, food safety, sanitation and more. They spent a week working in the school’s kitchen, pulling it apart and pressure-washing every surface and piece of equipment.

Planning menus was an enormous operation. “The Georgia Department of Education monitors what we do,” Bradley said. “They want to make sure you’re using portioned serving sizes, that you’re meeting the requirements for the number of ounces of grains and vegetables and fruit to serve. It’s like a big puzzle.”

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Middle school students at Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School participate in courses where they work with the nutrition team to understand the connection between food and culture. One class last year prepared salsas, agua frescas and vegetarian tamales to accompany a meal of lamb barbacoa tacos, and then proudly served what they’d prepared. Photo: David Bradley (For the AJC)

And, it’s one reason many schools use prepared foods, rather than cooking from scratch.

The school’s fulltime nutrition staff of six puts out 30 to 100 breakfasts and 350 to 500 lunches every day.

Meals can’t require too many “touches.” The time it takes to add a lime wedge to a tray takes away from the students’ time to enjoy the food. During lunch, middle school students have 25 minutes to get their food, eat and clean up (each group of students wipes down tables and sweeps floors before the next grade comes in).

Lunch is where the kitchen focuses its creative energy. Tostada Tuesday might mean a vegetarian tostada with queso fresco, avocado, and salpicon, a cabbage, radish and chile salad. Moroccan braised chicken with preserved lemon and chickpeas might be offered alongside falafel with tahini sauce and lemon, both accompanied by bulgur wheat, roasted carrots and cucumber with yogurt and herbs.

School meals can offer more celebrations than just Taco Tuesday. To celebrate last year’s Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos), students enjoyed pozole verde with chicken, lentils, calabaza en tacha (candied pumpkin with piloncillo sugar and canela) and pan de muertos. Photo: David Bradley (For the AJC)

The monthly menu is posted online, and it lists the farms that have provided the food served.

Robert Lupo came to ANCS in 2016, after working at restaurants like Leon’s Full Service in Decatur. “Here, we’re considered part of the faculty and are part of training on topics like diversity and equity,” he said.

“I like that we are a workplace that tackles some pretty relevant problems going on in the world today, bigger than just making sure food is ready for the kids,” Lupo said.

Bradley ties his menus to school curriculum when he can, and the menu gets more adventurous as the students get familiar with what’s prepared.

“About once a month, we make pozole,” he said. “We start from scratch, making the chicken stock, the salsa verde. At first, the students said, ‘What’s that green soup?’ But, now, they’re familiar with it, and if we miss a month, they request it.”

Students must be offered a serving of fruit with every meal. Kelli Dyer offers to core and slice the apples these elementary school students will enjoy with their lunch. Photo: Kelley Klein (For the AJC)

During Black History Month, Bradley said, “we prepare traditional soul food, and connect it to West African cuisine. We purchase from the West Georgia Food Co-op, a group of black-owned farms close to us. It gives us a chance to talk about how farmers were forced off their land following the Great Depression. It’s a good learning experience for me, and an opportunity to contribute to the conversation in the school.”

When school starts Aug. 1, Bradley and his team will be back in the kitchen, a place they all seem to love.

Former kindergartner Isaiah Tillman, now headed to first grade, carries a tray with summer vegetable curry served over brown rice. He’s also got yogurt and orange wedges. Photo: Kelley Klein (For the AJC)

“I loved restaurant work, I really did. But, I love working with children,” Bradley said.

Lindsey Conway, with the program since almost the beginning, after working as sous chef at Ecco and at Miller Union, echoes Bradley’s sentiment. “During lunch, it’s a little like being back in a restaurant kitchen, with the pressure of a rushed service. But, it’s for little kids, little teeny tiny patrons. They give us feedback, good and bad. I enjoy cooking every single day for the kids. They love us, and they love what we do for them.”

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