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Michigan Chef Embraces First Lady’s “Chefs Move to Schools” Initiative

In March 2011, USDA Special Nutrition Programs Regional Director Julie Mikkelson and I met Chef Paul Penney at a HealthierUS School Challenge(HUSSC) award celebration in Canton, Michigan. Chef Paul, a volunteer with the First Lady’s Chefs Move to Schools initiative, was in the kitchen at Dodson Elementary School helping school foodservice staff prepare mashed sweet potatoes and apples and Michigan cherry chili.

Both dishes, recipes he created for the Plymouth-Canton Community Schools, were making their debut at Dodson that day. At the lunchroom entrance, Chef Paul greeted each student and handed out 2 ounce “tasting cups” of the chili and the sweet potatoes. (He credits Plymouth-Canton foodservice director Kristen Hennessey with the idea.)


From my observation, the tasting strategy worked beautifully. Paul told me he had to do “a little cajoling” but I witnessed many students eating the samples and asking for the sweet potatoes and/or the chili for their school lunch. Many students who were “brown-baggers” also gobbled up the samples. Chef Paul hopes the experience will motivate the “brown-baggers” to try the school lunch in the future.    Chef Paul noted that his initial recipe had to undergo some tweaks. In their chunkier form the sweet potatoes were not well-accepted by the students, but mashing them did the trick. I found the turkey chili equally delicious. With Michigan dried cherries and onions, it was perfectly spiced with a sweet tart zing. Several adults, including me, begged for a family-sized version of the recipe! Another plus is that the recipe uses local products (Michigan cherries), which helps support the local economy.

When you meet Chef Paul, you’re immediately charmed by his warm and engaging manner, his enthusiasm, and his intriguing Australian accent.  I asked him about the “Aussie in the Kitchen” insignia on his chef’s jacket. Yes, he explains, “Aussie in the Kitchen” is just one of his culinary ventures. He also does a TV spot on cooking every two weeks on FOX-TV Detroit.  Recently, his main job has become teaching adults and children about good nutrition and practical ways to cook and eat healthier foods. He contracts with a local HMO to teach nutrition and healthy cooking classes to employees in various companies and works with Boys and Girls Clubs in their after-school programs.  

Paul is greatly concerned by the increase in obesity and diet-related diseases in school-age children. That’s why he signed on to the Chefs Move to Schools initiative. Paul tries to volunteer one day a week in the district’s schools. By the end of May, he will have worked with 10 of the district’s 16 elementary schools.   

Chef Paul thinks the Chefs Move to Schools initiative can make a big difference for school meals programs. “I encourage other chefs to get involved,” he says. “You owe it to yourselves. It is one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done. You will feel you’re really making a difference for these kids.”