Please don’t mock the chicken leg – an “education” summit, part 1

United by a passion for – OK, a curiosity about – mock chicken leg, MPS’ Cooper School on the South Side hosted a Mock Chicken Leg Summit.

Last autumn, I wrote about a long-standing, much-beloved and much-derided MPS lunch entrée. I’m talking, of course, about mock chicken leg, which is basically a breaded pork chop shaped (ever so vaguely) like a chicken leg.

In addition to lots of comments on social media, the article led to a Twitter discussion between me, MPS’ media manager Tony Tagliavia, Teach for America’s Garrett Bucks and Schools That Can’s Isral DeBruin and Kole Knueppel. That repartee led to our repast, courtesy of Cooper Principal Jennifer Doucette and her staff and students.

Alas, Tagliavia was sidetracked by a meeting, but the rest of us met up at Cooper last week and got the greeting of a lifetime.

Doucette is a good friend and has a great relationship with Schools That Can and so she rolled out the red carpet for us (not literally, but certainly figuratively).

Building engineer Sue Beay is another friend and she set us up in style in the cafeteria. Alongside the tables where the younger kids at Cooper (which is a K4-8 schools) were eating their hot dogs and brats, Beay laid a table adorned with a table cloth and springy decorations.

Cook Danette Storey was no less welcoming, cooking up our lunches (which she had saved from the previous day), offering us our choice of milk – chocolate all around (which, I know, is ironic considering my stance that it oughta be banned from school cafeterias) – and slipping us each a red Twizzler.

The kids – who referred to us, naively, as “dignitaries” (in their defense, they don’t know us) – walked past our table on the way out after eating and we chatted with lots of them.

Most said they like the mock chicken leg, which contradicts what adults in schools tell us. We also polled them, informally of course, on their lunch of hot dog or brat. Almost all prefer the former.

Cooper does pre-pack lunches, so our mock chicken leg – which contains a lot of food – arrived in a pair of plastic wrapped trays.

In one, there were red grapes, a bun and a pat of butter. In the other, there was a mix of cubed carrots and parsnips on one side and the mock chicken leg atop a dose of mashed potatoes on the other.

As a kid who always wanted to eat hot lunch in grade school, I enjoyed it. Sure, it had that kind of cafeteria vibe that you’d expect and the pre-pack wrap pretty much guaranteed that any crispness was steamed out, but it was exactly like what I always think of when I think of school hot lunches.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that I think school lunches are fine the way they are. Schools and districts that are partnering with urban farms and farm markets to create fresh lunches are carving out a path to a healthier future. But it’s a big change for a big city, however, and it will take time for all of America to get there.

In the meantime, this meal, while not a gourmet feast, included a good mix of foods, including fruit, veggies and a whole wheat bun. Whether or not the kids eat all the good stuff is another story entirely.

In addition to getting a tour of Cooper from Jennie, chatting about buildings and MPS facilities folks with Sue (as I’m wont to do), meeting great kids and dedicated teachers, the real result of the summit – though never the expressed goal – was that Bucks, DeBruin, Knueppel and I also talked about education in Milwaukee.

Despite our differing viewpoints and backgrounds, we spoke openly and were reminded that we may not entirely agree on the road to get there, we all agree that that every single child in this city not only deserves a great education.

On a lighter note, we also realized that the pre-pack mock chicken leg is likely different than the mock chicken leg at schools that don’t serve pre-pack. So, round two – at a non-pre-pack MPS school cafeteria – is currently in the works.

At that one, we will surely solve all of the education world’s problems, one cube of parsnip at a time.

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