Lisa Suriano, Veggiecation
Lisa Suriano is a certified nutritionist holding a Master’s degree in Nutrition and Food Science and specializing in school food service as the Director of Operations for J.C.Food, a premier school food service consulting company for independent schools in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Lisa founded the evidence-based nutrition education program, Veggiecation that introduces 1000s of American children to the delicious world of vegetables. As a school food service expert, Lisa serves as Co-chair of the board of directors of the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food, a non-profit that works in partnership with New York City’s Department of SchoolFood to improve the health of New York state students. Additionally, she serves as the Nutritionist for Lessing’s Food Service Management consulting for college level foods service programs, providing menu advisement and sports nutrition guidance for university athletics teams and providing nutritional services for their corporate dining customers. Lisa has been featured in a selection of national and regional media, including traditional print and broadcast as well as online news and social media outlets. Featured broadcast segments include NBC Weekend Today in New York and WPIX Morning News, where Lisa shared with viewers healthy, vegetarian recipes and discussed how viewers can incorporate healthy food choices into their diets. Lisa has also made broadcast appearances on ABC News, The Wendy Williams Show, One on One with Steve Adubato, News 12 Brooklyn, News 12 New Jersey and New York 1.
Hello everybody! I’m Caryn Hartglass and its time for It’s All About Food. Here we are, it’s April 8th 2014. I love this month. It’s my birthday month. So my birthday is on Earth Day, April 22nd and your more than welcome to send me happy birthday wishes on my birthday. You can do that at email@example.com that’s my email address and I would love to hear from you. Now I say that from time to time but I really, really mean it. And one thing I really want to know as I mentioned a couple weeks ago, I’ve been doing this program now for 5 years! 5 years talking about my favorite subject – food, with so many wonderful experts in the plant-based food movement. I want to know a little bit more about what you’re thinking about this program as we age, as we grow, as we get older. Are we doing the right thing? Are you liking what you’re hearing? Do you want to hear more of one thing or another? Can you please let me know? firstname.lastname@example.org is how you do that and I look forward to hearing what you have to say. Now another thing that you can do, some of my listeners do this from time to time and I love it, is you recommend people for me to talk to on my program. And I have to tell you that my 8 year old niece made a recommendation and the next person that I am going to be speaking with right here on this program today, is the person she wanted me to talk to and I’m really glad that she did. So, let me introduce my first guest Lisa Suriano. She is a certified Nutritionist holding a Masters degree in Nutrition and Food Science specializing in School Food Service as the Director of Operations for J.C. Food a premier school food service consulting company for independent schools in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut and she founded the evident-based nutrition education program Veggiecation that introduces thousands of American children to the delicious world of vegetables. As a school food service expert, she serves as Coat Chair of the Board of Directors of the New York Coalition For Healthy School Food, we know that wonderful non-profit right? They work in partnership with New York city’s Department of School Food to improve the health of New York state students. There is so much more about Lisa Suriano and were going to find out right now.
Caryn Hartglass: Welcome to It’s All About Food Lisa.
Lisa Suriano: Thank you so much for having me Caryn.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes, well I love what you’re doing because somehow, Americans especially, its becoming more and more contagious around the world where we’re forgetting how to eat, what to eat, how to prepare our food, what we should be doing, and its detrimental to all life on earth, not just humanity but our whole planet.
Lisa Suriano: Extremely detrimental, we need to reverse this trend.
Caryn Hartglass: And one of the best ways to do it is to start with children.
Lisa Suriano: I believe that strongly which is why I started my program.
Caryn Hartglass: I remember my sister’s son when he was about 5 years old, I remember asking him where do apples come from and he said, Publics, which was the local supermarket in Florida. And that’s true but apples really come from trees, right?
Lisa Suriano: Yes.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, so tell me about, lets start with J.C. Food. You’re the Director of Operations. What is that and what do you do?
Lisa Suriano: J.C. Food is actually my family company. It’s a private school food service company. It was started by my father and him and his business has really been my inspiration in all the work that I’ve done in my career so far. My dad is a classically trained chef, he grew up in Brooklyn and he started working at the Four Seasons in the late 70s. He started having his family, me and my sister, and he wanted to be able to come to softball games, dance recitals, and be home for Christmas Eve and he found a job at a school in the upper east side, the Brearley that was looking for a Chef Manager. My dad got the job and started cooking as he would have at the Four Seasons. Seasonal, from scratch food, things that he learned from his classic training, things his mom used to make for him and that really caught fire. He was so ahead of his time in the early 80s doing that, they were an all girl’s school, and so the boy’s school wanted the same kind of food and someone else had another kid at another school and his business just grew very much from word of mouth and from people loving his food and starting to see food in a different way. So that’s been my father’s business and the business that I grew up in my whole life.
Caryn Hartglass: And that seems so different from the standard school food service that goes on today. The things we’ve seen on television with Jamie Oliver where everything comes from a box that the food service professionals just mix with water and cook it, it’s all manufactured, synthetic, scary stuff.
Lisa Suriano: Yes, what’s amazing is my dad was doing this work sort of at the exact time that that trend was really taking hold of school food so when I was a kid and people and used to ask me what my dad did it was really hard for me to explain because people were like, “Eww, your dad makes school food?” and I would have to explain that it’s not what you think and people didn’t’ really get it. Now that the eyes have come into the cafeteria kitchen, people are understanding it and the trend is starting to turn but its definitely a slow moving train.
Caryn Hartglass: And there’s plenty of evidence that shows that children behave better, they learn better when they have real food.
Lisa Suriano: Absolutely. For schools not to look at nutrition of their students as a critical part of academics, test scores, disciplinary acts, absenteeism, everything across the board is effected by what you eat but it really effects the teachers experience and the administrator experience with their students as well.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, so you’re involved with that and then you founded Veggiecation so lets talk about that because I think that that sounds really fun.
Lisa Suriano: Thank you. It has been a lot of fun. Its been quite an adventure over the past 4 ½ years. I came into the company because I was doing personal training and teaching yoga and really into fitness and nutrition when I graduated from college with a Business degree in 2005. My dad’s business was growing and he said to me, “Can you come on and help me with the growth of the business and to be the advocate for health in the company?” and so it was a perfect fit for me and my dad’s one of my best friends so it was a good fit for us. I came in like Gang Busters trying to advocate for holy everything and really trying to market and sale vegetables to kids with no marketing materials. So I came at it from that approach because like I said I came out of school with a Business degree and I believe in the power of marketing. I was also meeting with reps from the big food companies that had their great marketing strategies and different schemes that they did to work themselves into schools and I said, “Well this is not fair if their going to sell processed foods with all this marketing materials and I have nothing to sell my whole foods with.” So I started Veggiecation as more of a marketing tool at first. I also wanted to get into the classroom and the teachers that I spoke with that a lot of these great independent schools throughout the city here said, “We don’t really have time for nutrition education. We still have to teach literacy, math, science, and social studies and there’s no time for nutrition.” so it was my job in the lunch room to create this education and this marketing.
Caryn Hartglass: I’m just thinking of someone and I’m wishing her name would come to me. She’s from Cornell, she used to work with T. Colin Campbell. I think she has its like the Food Institute or something. Dema! Dr. Dema…Antonia Demas. Thank you memory! I’m not losing it yet! Anyway, she had put out a 24-week curriculum Food is Elementary. Are you familiar with that?
Lisa Suriano: I have heard of that.
Caryn Hartglass: It was exactly what you had heard. Teachers were saying, “We don’t have time.” Teachers are overwhelmed. I mean, our whole school system is just crazy to begin with and they don’t have time to add to their curriculum so she came up with food education that would fit into their standard subjects and that’s how she managed to teach healthy food.
Lisa Suriano: I did the same thing. When we first started out we called it a Classroom Companion. I actually went to a friend of mine who is a teacher in New York he had worked in public schools in the top 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade. I said to him, “What would be helpful to you? How could I actually do what you need to do, accomplish this, and also accomplish my own goals?” so he said, “If have lessons with lesson suggestion, supporting academic material, something that was fun, cute, colorful and also lined up to my standard, so I knew what I was accomplishing academically I could use that.” So him and I developed, over one summer, these 3 Classroom Companions for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade with just a ton of supporting academic resources for the program. So we do have an academic piece to our program.
Caryn Hartglass: Well that’s very nice and you’re competing with major corporations that have materials that they give the schools for free. And schools are so strapped for cash that they love free materials but for them they are actually marketing their unhealthy products at the same time. So where do people get this material? Do they have to go to Veggiecation and contact you and have you come to their school to get your program? How does that all work?
Lisa Suriano: It really started with the academic program and we try to make that really inexpensive for schools and reproducible materials for them so the program was initially $69.99 for them to have the Classroom Companions and all these reproducible academic materials. To be perfectly honest with you I found that even making this so easy and turnkey for teachers it still had a hard time finding the niche in the classroom and what we started doing, at the same time because im all about the food as you are, we were doing tastings with kids of the different vegetables and characters that we had and then I started working with the Whole Foods on the upper west side of Manhattan here and teaching Healthy Kids Cooking classes once a month. That changed the game for us. Seeing kids and the way that they interacted with vegetables and herbs and beans that they have never seen before never touched, never smelled, never tasted and they way that they were empowered by making their own recipe, that opened my eyes to what this program is all about and what we needed to do. So that’s become the focus of education were a culinary nutrition education program now because cooking skills are an essential life skill and what were able to do for schools now is either have one of our Veggiecator Educators, as we call them, our instructors who are trained and equipped to teach classes there. We have them all over the US and Canada now and soon in South Africa and Korea.
Caryn Hartglass: I bet you’re really excited about.
Lisa Suriano: Or what we’ve also been doing for several groups locally is training teachers, doing professional development teaching them how to engage their students with these healthy hands on activities also some non-profits have had us do trainings for them as well. So it can be a sustainable program that schools don’t have to keep paying for.
Caryn Hartglass: Now I know here in Manhattan, there are many homes that have the most gorgeous kitchens you have ever seen anywhere, decked out with all Al Clad, Le Creuset, all my favorite pots and pans and they’ve never been used and nobody knows where their kitchens are. So I’m not surprised to hear that kids don’t know what these foods are and haven’t had them because their parents don’t really know much about them either.
Lisa Suriano: It’s true. This is a complete problem for all levels of society all social economic levels everyone is suffering from this problem and its not just here in the city in urban life I see it out in suburban life as well. We’ve just had this same message and same experience from people all over the country that people have just gotten so far away from the kitchen that they don’t know. I think there is a generation of parents that are uncomfortable with cooking and that’s why we need to change this with the kids.
Caryn Hartglass: Well the parents are uncomfortable. There are so many of them overwhelmed and overworked and both parents are working and it’s really hard to have time for the kids, have time for the job. Everybody is tired and to think about what to make in the kitchen, it seems easier to go for the convenience foods, the prepared foods and be done with it. I don’t think it’s necessarily easier. Maybe you have some thoughts on that. It’s a big challenge.
Lisa Suriano: Yes, I agree with you. Its definitely not easier when you have the skills. When you have the skills to prepare simple healthy meals its actually a lot less expensive. Were working so hard to create a savings account, to be able to pay our bills and a lot of take-out or processed foods are going to be more expensive not only for our budget but also down the road for our health and our healthcare. For me both my parents both my parents were entrepreneurs so from the time I was in middle school I was home alone a lot and I would come from the bus and I lived in New Jersey, I would come home and be responsible for my own snack after school and I was always hungry and doing my homework and such. Because my dad always had me in the kitchen and was always teaching me how to make things, I could come home and whip up a really delicious snack for myself and not be a problem. If my mom had to work late I could make dinner and be happy with that. At 12 years old that’s a great thing to be able to do.
Caryn Hartglass: Absolutely So you work with kids, I want to know a number of things. What are the things that they really enjoy and what are things that that they really don’t like?
Lisa Suriano: You might not believe me on this. There actually have been very few things that they haven’t liked.
Caryn Hartglass: I believe you.
Lisa Suriano: Ok, good. What we do with our recipes is, I have an amazing chef, Chef [Nancy Burgess Jackson [00:15:59] who has been working with Jaycee Food [00:16:07] for, I’m not going to say how long. She’ll kill me. A long time, and she has 2 beautiful twin daughters. She has helped me, she’s been integral in creating these recipes that we call classroom style so that they can be done anywhere with our portable cooking kits and they don’t require a kitchen because most schools or community centers don’t have one. Their simple, their easy, their plant-based, their affordable and what we do is we test them at a summer camp that she runs in Brooklyn every summer. The ones that don’t work, don’t make it into the recipe book. But for the most part we do raw salad, we do lettuce-less salads quite often because I’ve always been someone who’s eating a lot of greens and salads and I used to get a little bit bored with a leafy green salad sometimes so I like the crunchy stuff. So we’ve made salads that kids really love that’s just the crunchy stuff. Green apples and celery and grapes with a honey Dijon vinaigrette that they’ve made themselves. We do a lot of green smoothies, kids absolutely love that. Anything in the blender kids go crazy for. Pesto, bean dip, all different kinds of spreads, kids go crazy for that kind of stuff.
Caryn Hartglass: Wow. Now what about leafy greens in salads?
Lisa Suriano: Don’t worry, we don’t leave them out. We do make some leafy green salads. Some of our characters are kale and spinach and romaine lettuce and cabbage and green leaf lettuce so we definitely work with out leafy greens but we also do creative things like green leaf lettuce wraps.
Caryn Hartglass: I love them.
Lisa Suriano: Yes, so good. Also putting them in green smoothies. We make our Shamrock Smoothies with the kale and Sweetheart Smoothie with the spinach and things like that. Kids really respond to and at first their a little freaked out that it’s green but once you’ve educated them on the health benefits and not just, we don’t take about foliate and vitamin k. Adults don’t care what that is. They care that its going to give them brain power and its going to make their hair healthy and shiny and make their skin look good and prevent pimples and all these kinds of things that beauty product use to sell their products, we actually can say that for real with our vegetables.
Caryn Hartglass: They do care about protein though because that’s the only thing people seem to know about.
Lisa Suriano: That’s true, but we let them know about how much protein is in their vegetables and that’s really exciting for them as well.
Caryn Hartglass: Were did kids learn not to like vegetables?
Lisa Suriano: I think it’s a societal thing.
Caryn Hartglass: Hundreds of years ago, did kids like vegetables?
Lisa Suriano: I cant say cause I’ve only been on earth for about 3 decades now so I don’t know but I do know the way that my grandparents ate. We lived in a 2 family house so I grew up with my grandparents who were first generation Italian-Americans. Actually my grandfather had a farm in Queens if you can imagine that. The pictures are amazing. He grew up on a farm and he tended to the vegetables so we always had vegetables in our house and he turned our garden in New Jersey into his own little farm and I grew up tending to the herbs and the green beans and the zucchini with him. I think exposure is so key in our society just throws chicken fingers and pizza and mozzarella sticks in front of the kids and there is nothing green so its an exposure issue. Their not familiar with it. The research shows us that its 12 to 15 exposures to a new food for a child to become comfortable with it and to accept it on their own and choose it on their own.
Caryn Hartglass: 12 to 15, that is a lot.
Lisa Suriano: I think what happens is parents see their kids and try to give them a pepper
Caryn Hartglass: “I don’t want it! I don’t want it! Ewww – its green!”
Lisa Suriano: And that’s it. “My kid doesn’t like peppers.” and then its over, peppers are dead in the family and that’s just not true.
Caryn Hartglass: I see parents sometimes, when its a vegetable that they don’t like they don’t ever realize their giving the message to the kid “Oh you wont like that.”
Lisa Suriano: Yes, you know we have our own biases and always say to the kids, “If you don’t try something new you don’t know if your going to like it or not. You might not like it because not everybody likes everything and that’s ok because that’s what makes us unique and special. But you might find that you do like it and then you’ve found your new favorite food.” Kids really get that, they understand it and often times takes some of the hold outs over the hump of not trying something that’s making them nervous.
Caryn Hartglass: Now you say that you’re J.C. Foods works with independent schools so what’s the difference between independent schools and public schools and why do you work with on verses the other?
Lisa Suriano: My dads always worked with independent schools because his business model works for independent private schools. It would not work for public schools. Having the knowledge that I do about school food and about working with kids and healthy foods brought me to the NY Coalition for Healthy School Food and that’s an organization that focuses on primarily on public schools. Public school is a whole different animal when it comes to budgeting and regulation and so my dad always wanted to do the food that he wanted to do and be successful at that and didn’t want to have to make compromises.
Caryn Hartglass: And he found a market for that.
Lisa Suriano: Exactly, so it worked for him and I tried a couple times to push this into public schools and then I realized how horrible that is in certain levels from a business perspective so I have satisfied that need to get involved in public schools by being a big part of the coalition and becoming a Co-Chair of the board and what we do is we work directly with the department of education here in New York City with the office of school food to promote more plant based options as actual meals on the city menu.
Cary Hartglass: So what positive things have happened so far?
Lisa Suriano: Some really positive things have happened. Particularly within the last 2 years. When those big regulation changes happened through the USDA the city gave us the option of the alternative menu and so there’s the classic menu that has your chicken tenders, and your mozzarella sticks for lunch a lot of beef and pork and things like that. And then there’s the alternative menu that has no beef, no pork, no mozzarella sticks, no fried chicken fingers.
Caryn Hartglass: What else is there?
Lisa Suriano: It’s a beautiful menu. There is a lot of greens a lot of roasted sweet potatoes There’s 2 days that are plant-based purely plant-based foods there’s a big focus on beans adding more herbs into recipes and for schools that have nutrition education as part of their school environment the menus have been really really successful.
Caryn Hartglass: And do kids have to choose in advance if they want the alternative menu?
Lisa Suriano: It’s a choice that the school makes and it’s really ultimately the principles choice but something that can come as an initiative from the PTA.
Caryn Hartglass: So they do one or the other.
Lisa Suriano: Yes, it’s either the classic menu or the alternative menu. We’ve also had the great success that we announced around this time last year for public vegetarian schools.
Caryn Hartglass: In Queens! I live in Queens
Lisa Suriano: Yes, Queens PS 244. I was born in Queens so I was very very proud of 244 and I’m blown away with that school.
Caryn Hartglass: So what’s happening there what’s the progress that’s happening?
Lisa Suriano: The progress is phenomenal. They did do a study on the BMI in the school and BMIs down.
Caryn Hartglass: This is before and after.
Lisa Suriano: Yes.
Caryn Hartglass: I read that some of these kids were more plant-friendly than your average school.
Lisa Suriano: Yes, the culture in the school there’s a lot of very strong Asian influence from a lot of Indian families and also a lot of Chinese families as well so introducing beans and tofu was not totally crazy to them. They had been exposed to them at a young age. It did take about 3 years to get to the point of 5 plant-based days. It was a slow progression. It started with 2 plant-based days, then 3, then 4, then 5 and it was a lot of community education. Every year we would do 2 family dinner nights where we would serve a plant based meal and we would do education on processed foods and the importance of plant based foods. And also the principal there Bob Groff is extremely committed to having nutrition education as part of everyday of these students. Its incredible, you see the projects on the wall are all about fitness and wellness and its really incredible.
Caryn Hartglass: Ok, so their BMI is down.
Lisa Suriano: Yes, and I believe test scores are also up for that school and they have been the inspiration for 2 other schools in New York City to also go vegetarian this year.
Caryn Hartglass: Who are those?
Lisa Suriano: There is the Peck Slip school.
Caryn Hartglass: Where is that?
Lisa Suriano: It’s actually in the Chancellors building downtown and please forgive me. I don’t know the name of the other school.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s ok. Wow. Go New York!
Lisa Suriano: That’s really exciting.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s really good new. Now, Whole Foods. So you do your culinary classes for kids in the Whole Foods.
Lisa Suriano: Yes, we started with the upper west side Were doing it once a month every third Tuesday of the month at 4:00 and that became so successful there that in 6 months we were in 23 Whole Foods markets in the northeast region and that is really what grew our program, made people aware of what we were doing and since then, because I couldn’t possible teach class in 23 stores, I started training our instructors and in last August launched what we call Veggiecator Educator training program so now our instructors can work independently and actually make a living doing what they love.
Caryn Hartglass: Wow, that’s great. That’s wonderful. So what do the kids make in these programs.
Lisa Suriano: Lettuce-less salads, they also make things like lettuce wraps, they make green smoothies, they make all different kinds of pestos, we have one that i really love in the spring called minty pesto which is make with fresh mint leaves olive oil and peas, green peas. That’s amazing on pasta, so good! And then also make green smoothies and taking about how they can start their day, spinach smoothies in particular is a good mood food so its a perfect way to start your day and get 3 of your 5 food servings of fruits and vegetables in the morning with fruit and strawberries, spinach and strawberries.
Caryn Hartglass: So you’re telling me that most of these kids didn’t originally eat like this that come and take your classes because I’m thinking the parents that know about whole foods and take their kids and shop in Whole Foods have an edge already on healthier foods I’m assuming.
Lisa Suriano: You would think that most of them have been exposed to it some yes and sometimes we get kids that are cooking in the kitchen with the parents and are familiar.
Caryn Hartglass: I know my nephew and niece they do a lot of cooking at home.
Lisa Suriano: And that’s fantastic. And then we have some kids that parents have sought this out as a solution for them because they are frustrated. I had a mom in Yonkers, I was teaching a class there on Sundays once a month and the mom came up to me after about 3 or 4 months and I kept seeing her and her son and she said, “I have to thank you. We have our Veggiecation list on the refrigerator We would do 2 new vegetables of beans, herbs, every month, and she said every month now we get to add 1 or 2 new vegetables that we know is on our Veggiecation list and we know he will eat them. We’ve get peppers, we’ve got carrots, we’ve go chickpeas things like that.” little anecdotal things like that are we keep me going everyday.
Caryn Hartglass: Now, is there a cost for people to take this program at Whole Foods?
Lisa Suriano: No, its a free program that we offer at Whole Foods so were in several of the stores throughout the northeast region. I think your niece saw us at the Danbury store in Connecticut. It’s one of the newer stores for Whole Foods here. They can just find out about it and sign up.
Caryn Hartglass: That is so fabulous. Okay, so I think we’ve come to the end. What’s the favorite, the ultimate favorite that the kids love?
Lisa Suriano: The ultimate, my never-fail – is parsley lemon pesto.
Caryn Hartglass: Parsley lemon pesto. And they dip their veggies in it or do whatever they want?
Lisa Suriano: They dip there veggies or we’ll do a whole wheat pita bread with it or sometimes they’ll get a whole grain roll or something like that because kids like to be able to dip the bread and soak up the pesto with it. It’s absolutely my favorite recipe that we have. I’m sure you can find it on our website Veggiecation.com and put it on everything. It’s so good.
Caryn Hartglass: That sounds good! Lisa, thank you so much for joining me on It’s All About Food. People can find you at?
Lisa Suriano: veggiecation.com.
Caryn Hartglass: Great thank you.
Lisa Suriano: Thank you.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, were going to take a little break and we will be right back with Brendon Brazier.
Transcribed by Victoria Naranjo, 4/18/2014