Think of typical school lunches and the word “revolutionary” doesn’t exactly come to mind, but when Calhoun reimagined its food program in 2002, it was exactly that. After recruiting Chef Bobo to lead the charge, lunch at Calhoun was transformed from standard school mealtime into something extraordinary—a holistic approach to healthy eating that appealed to both students and parents. With the Eat Right Now program, nutritious meals were being crafted daily by skilled chefs, featuring a plethora of diverse flavors, exposing students to new tastes and encouraging balanced eating habits. Eighteen years later, the program remains a staple at Calhoun, benefiting more and more children with each passing school year.
Rewind to 2002: The food landscape in schools looked more like a desert, and the idea of expertly trained chefs providing daily meal service to school-age children seemed beyond imagination. It wasn’t, however, beyond the imaginations of Calhoun’s leadership and the dedicated search committee who made it their mission to revamp Calhoun’s food service. Along came Chef Robert Surles. Chef Bobo, as he is more lovingly known to Calhouners, was tasked with bringing quality, wholesome meals to the school community. It was no easy undertaking, but Bobo was up for the challenge.
After being trained at the French Culinary Institute (now known as the International Culinary Center) and working as former New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter’s personal chef, Chef Bobo certainly had the chops. But beyond his culinary skills, what Chef Bobo brought to the Calhoun kitchen was a love for working with children. He saw his role as Executive Chef & Director of Food Services as an opportunity to use mealtime as a tool to educate students on how to care for their bodies through food and to diversify their palates by exposing them to new ingredients and textures.
Calhoun’s kitchen team took on the task of making well-balanced, portion-controlled lunches for students that were both delicious and fun to eat. Gone were the prepackaged hot dogs and chicken fingers. Now lunch consisted of a full spread made with fresh ingredients, organic or purchased from local farms, when possible. Every meal included a main entree and vegetarian option, sides, soups and sandwiches, as well as a full salad bar featuring fresh vegetables and fruit. Though a vast improvement over the previous lunch options at the school, the change still came with its own unique set of challenges. Some students resisted the transition and some parents worried their kids wouldn’t take to the new and expanded menu options. But picky palates were no match for the talented chefs of Calhoun, who skillfully weaned Calhouners off frozen foods and introduced delicious global flavors inspired by their own travels and cultural backgrounds.
The Eat Right Now program was designed as a holistic approach to eating. The focus went beyond the food on the plate, offering the Calhoun community an opportunity to learn more about nutrition, the politics of food, and environmental concerns. Plates in the cafeteria were recyclable and portions were carefully measured to reduce food waste. Chefs became a presence in school classrooms, providing hands-on lessons in areas like nutrition, biology and chemistry. In recent years, in classes like the Politics of Food elective in the Upper School, students learned about corporate farms, food lobbyists and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), among other things, providing insight into issues of food access and ethics, and giving students the tools necessary to be conscious consumers.
Like former Head of School Steve Nelson once wrote: “As the world learned about Calhoun and Chef Bobo, the world paid attention.” It wasn’t long before Calhoun’s food program began garnering attention from media around New York and beyond. Articles and news stories about Calhoun’s food program were featured in The New York Times, NPR’s All Things Considered, The New Yorker and countless other outlets, all of which praised Chef Bobo and Calhoun for the program’s comprehensive approach to reinventing school lunch.
That attention was a springboard, and years later Eat Right Now’s impact and influence have reached far beyond the walls of the school. Inspired by his work with Calhoun, several institutions consulted with Chef Bobo as they revamped their own food service, and a number of Calhoun kitchen alums have since taken the knowledge they gained at 81st Street to other schools, where they head food programs. Today, Eat Right Now’s influence can be seen in the programs of institutions like Rudolf Steiner School, Metropolitan Montessori School, The Spence School and several others.
Now, in 2021, it is almost impossible to imagine Calhoun without its lunch program. From the very first lunch service to today, the core of Eat Right Now has always been much more than just quality food; it has consistently reflected Calhoun as an institution. Like the classes they take, the meals Calhoun students eat each day provide them with an education, teaching them healthy eating habits and providing them with broader knowledge about their role as consumers in the world beyond the classroom. These are the lessons they will take with them long after they leave the school.