Chef, teacher bring healthy back to school lunch

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Chef Brooks Rinehart, left, and Wendy Cummings serve up a healthful lunch of teriyaki chicken, rice pilaf, stir-fry vegetables and fruit to students Jesse Skipper and Evan Berkner at Hilton Head Christian Academy.

Hilton Head Christian Academy faculty members Wendy Cummings and Brooks Rinehart have merged a shared philosophy and passion for wellness.

Most days, Cummings, health and wellness director and school nurse, can be found applying Band-Aids, taking temperatures and listening to the students who wander into her gym office to "get well."

Rinehart, the school chef, stays busy in the school kitchen crafting healthy culinary delights for the faculty and students.

Behind the scenes, however, the two have been cooking up some big plans.

Typical cafeteria lunches on trays? Not at all. At HHCA, all the school lunches could easily be served at a gourmet restaurant. Menu items include such tasty morsels as salmon with lemon basil orzo pasta, broccoli Alfredo with whole wheat pasta, ginger chicken, balsamic roasted vegetable wraps, and crab salad with avocado.

Four years ago, Rinehart was director of food and nutrition at Hilton Head Hospital. He then started a business called Healthy Culinary Concepts, with a mission to make an impact in the schools.

Cummings was already busy cultivating a wellness program at HHCA. Eventually the two collaborated to start the healthy lunch program.

Previously, like most private schools, HHCA had been serving students daily take-out from local fast food restaurants.

Parents and teachers have noticed positive changes in the children. "Parents have remarked, 'At least I know now that my child is getting one wholesome meal a day in school,'" Cummings said.

The two also launched a "Kids in the Kitchen" series of student chef sessions. "The program has given the HHCA kids the hands-on experience to see what the food is, how to make the food, and our belief is if they cook it, they are far more likely to eat it," Rinehart said.

Rinehart and Cummings have added individual box gardens and an herb garden on campus that are incorporated into the weekly menus. Their long-term plan is to bring a larger, student-grown and operated garden with a self-sustaining greenhouse onto the property.

The food program is just one part of the school's health and wellness program. Cummings brought a cross-fit style exercise program called Boks to the school. It was developed to empower parents, teachers and schools to give kids a body and brain boost that will set them up for a day of learning.

Students aren't the only beneficiaries of the school's healthful dining focus. Families have an opportunity to purchase an affordable, nutritious dinner through Rinehart's "What's For Dinner?" program. Meals are available at carpool pickup.

Cummings and Rinehart envision HHCA becoming a pilot school in South Carolina with a goal of impacting the entire community.

Erin Lentz is a freelance writer.

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