Every morning, Michelle Chavez opens up the kitchen door to the courtyard so her students at Monte del Sol Charter School in Santa Fe, New Mexico can smell the onions and garlic she is cooking. According to Chavez, when her seventh-graders are walking back and forth to class, they look over in the direction of the kitchen, following the scent.
Monte del Sol is a small liberal and progressive seventh to twelfth grade school in Santa Fe. And every single day, Chavez cooks lunches at the school for the students from scratch. It’s not often that you hear of a lunch lady that cooks meals for 160 students, teaches history and physical education and still has enough energy at the end of the day to teach at the Santa Fe School of Cooking. But for Chavez, it’s all in a day’s work.
When other schools are trying to encourage students to choose vegetables over processed junk food, Chavez is living proof that you can provide students with good, clean food made from the freshest ingredients every day. It might take a lot of love, sweat, and tears, but it’s exactly what our former first lady Michelle Obama envisioned when she introduced her healthy school lunch program while President Obama was in office. Luckily for students at Monte del Sol, it’s their daily reality.
There’s slim chance that a middle school in Small Town, USA would find the resources to prepare a healthy, fresh meal every day for their students. I’m sure you’ve seen the headlines:
“Health experts turn up their noses at new school lunch rule”
“USDA delays healthy school lunch requirements”
“Hey kids! You can soon have low-fat, chocolate milk with your school lunch!”
But not in Chavez’ kitchen. She is single-handedly revolutionizing the way kids eat and approach their school lunches.
“I work with a staff of three, one of us leaves and takes lunch to another charter school in Santa Fe, so daily we feed about 160 kids. We start with fresh and raw ingredients every day. Today, we made beef stew and biscuits with mashed potatoes and fresh fruit. I made the beef stock, we cooked the beef, mixed it with chopped vegetables and beef stock. I had two student helpers help make the biscuits from scratch that we fed the school. We use very little from a can, nearly everything starts from ingredients.”
What Chavez cooks every day for her children can only be described as a foodie’s dream. Have you ever imagined middle school kids waking up every morning and feeling excited about what they were going to eat for lunch that day? Not really. But Fridays are no typical pizza day in Michelle’s kitchen. “On the days when we make pizza, we had kids coming back for thirds,” she says.
“On pizza day, I will make five full-sized trays of focaccia and split down the middle, so we have 10 pieces. We make tomato sauce (sometimes we use fresh tomatoes from the school garden) and fresh herbs, we top that with green chile and other toppings. The kids go crazy … I love that.”
Believe it or not, Chavez’ first love isn’t her work in the kitchen. Instead, it’s history.
“I came to food through history especially the history of the Southwest. As a kid, my family lived in Gallup, New Mexico. My dad would load us up in the car and go bouncing down the red dirt roads of New Mexico exploring such ancient places like Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde, [and] Canyon de Shelly among others. We would go artifact hunting and almost always found arrowheads or pottery shards out in the desert.”
Chavez also possesses an impressive resume that includes cooking for former presidents and vice presidents, including George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Vicente Fox of Mexico.
Originally from El Paso, Texas, Michelle moved to Santa Fe in 2003 and co-owns Coriander Catering. When she’s not spending her time being an awesome stepmom and conducting classes at the Santa Fe School of Cooking, she also gardens and mentors young chefs.
Chavez makes it no secret that she leads a busy and exciting life that she wouldn’t change it for anything. And it’s without a doubt that if Michelle Obama opened the door to the courtyard of Monte del Sol’s kitchen, she would smell the fresh onions and garlic and breathe a sigh of relief, thanks to passionate educators like Chavez.