08 Aug Island culture and school food
We met some of the Robinson School staff at the 2014 NAIS Annual Conference when they approached us enthusiastically about the idea of re-energizing their school lunch program. Robinson School is the oldest private school in Puerto Rico and has been a pioneer in developing education initiatives and early childhood education outlets for the greater San Juan metro area since its inception in 1902.
Puerto Ricans pride themselves on their heritage, and food is an integral part of that. Their food culture is vibrant and different than any other we have worked with before. The area provides many opportunities to highlight local root vegetables, spices, tropical fruits, and herbs. However, 80% of the food on the island is imported and Puerto Rico has one of the highest obesity and diabetes rates in the nation.
The school’s main goal was to protect local heritage while introducing new flavors and more nutritious options.
Greg first traveled to San Juan to assess the existing food program at the school. It was decided that the school would go out to bid, even if that meant considering their current foodservice provider under different terms.
Beyond Green helped Robinson School through the RFP process to develop and incorporate a strategy that the school would ask its provider to follow going forward. We helped interview companies to make sure their claims were accurate and their understanding of the sustainability strategy was clear.
It was a welcome challenge to find a provider that fit in with the culture of the school and could do both healthy and traditional. Eight companies were considered and three finalists were deemed worthy of the contract. The winning bid was awarded to a company with a fearless leader who is open minded to stepping outside of the usual Puerto Rican fare while continuing to embrace it. When the company cooked as part of the interview process the ingredients used were higher quality. We knew they could cook with fresh foods and were open to practicing new sustainability skills.
Once the school selected the winning bid, Greg visited San Juan several times in the summer of 2014 to introduce Robinson’s new provider to some of the sustainability concepts and menu goals important to the school. Greg shopped for new kitchen equipment necessary to scratch-cook food and simply updated other pieces. These purchases included a double convection oven, brazier, dishwasher, and reach-in refrigerators.
Check out what other pieces of equipment we believe are quintessential to a scratch institutional kitchen: Top 5 Pieces
Greg worked with school staff to make sure they were comfortable with a new provider and knew what to ask for in order to set higher standards for the program. He had fun working with Robinson School’s staff including their Head of School, Dan Hildebrand, who happens to hail from Chicago.
It was immediately apparent that Robinson School’s staff is very committed to their students. One teacher was already leading an aquaponics class and maintaining the school’s compost bin. Student Karla González submitted a winning recipe for Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign and had the opportunity to dine at the White House in July. Throughout the entire process the school was very considerate of stakeholder expectations and the family traditions that are deeply ingrained in the school community.
The culture itself presented a learning opportunity for Beyond Green. Greg worked to understand the intricacies of local customs. He was told many times that it was okay he didn’t understand something because he wasn’t Puerto Rican, but after spending some time in the community he was asked twice to move to San Juan. The beaches still call his name.
The fear of change can be even more pronounced in communities that hold onto a heritage amongst the impact of outside cultures. The balance between embracing the past and changing for the future was the most rewarding part of the project.
Now, Robinson School will open the 2014-2015 school year with an innovative new food program complimented by updated equipment and an outdoor seating space that will continue to serve the school for many years.