By Jane Laskey

SARTELL — Seth Bixby Daugherty is a man on a mission to change the way America eats.

He carried his message to Sartell High School this week, meeting with student council members and food service staff to help revamp cafeteria offerings.

Bixby Daugherty's restaurant career started at 12 years old, when he got a job buttering toast and washing dishes in upstate New York. He earned his culinary chops at the Culinary Institute of America, and then moved on to jobs at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, D.C., and working in Manhattan.

In 2000 he moved to the Minneapolis area, winning raves for his menus at D'Amico Cucina and Cosmos. In 2005, he was named one of America's 10 best new chefs by Food & Wine Magazine.

But it wasn't enough.

"I'm super proud of what I accomplished. But after 20 years of 80-100 hour weeks, I asked myself, 'What am I doing?' " Bixby Daugherty said. "I knew if I stayed in this job, I'd miss watching my children growing up."

He resigned from Cosmos in 2006 and set about reinventing himself.

Eat real food

Bixby Daugherty's passion for good food collided with the dismal reality of American eating habits. Processed foods high in corn syrup and sodium have become staples in many households.

Fast foods have eclipsed family dinners.

"I want to change Americans' relationship with food," he said.

"Today 60 percent of adults over age 30 are overweight. We're in our third generation of processed food eaters. I'm no scientist, but the connection seems clear."

But where to begin? It was a school lunch that gave him the answer. Bixby Daugherty had joined his son, Cole, at the school cafeteria one day and was not happy with what he saw.

"I watched him drink three chocolate milks," he said. "They're kids. They're not supposed to be making these decisions. We're the adults. We need to show them the way."

Bixby Daugherty and his wife, Karen, started Real Food Initiatives and took the battle for healthful eating to the cafeteria.

What RFI does

RFI's mission can be summed up with three words: Eat real food.

The organization works with schools to revamp food programs and develop life- skills curricula that connect cooking with nutrition. It also helps families better understand the importance of healthful eating.

One day a week, Bixby Daugherty gives his time and energy to any group interested in resurrecting good eating habits. RFI works to break the cycle of processed foods by challenging schools to limit their use. By bringing fresh foods and local products to school, they hope to reduce the incidence of childhood obesity and diabetes.

In the past year, he's worked with seven school systems. Fifty more requests wait in his e-mail inbox. And a recent appearance on "The Rachael Ray Show" has school districts from 12 other states lining up to hear what he has to say.

Bixby Daugherty's school visits are free.

"I don't want any money. It confuses people," Bixby Daugherty said. "If someone's giving you money, then they want to influence what you say."

Sartell connection

Brenda Braulick heard of Bixby Daugherty's work when a school board member brought her a news clipping. As food service director for the Sartell-St. Stephen school district, she immediately knew she wanted to bring his vision to area schools.

The district's food service program already has a lot to offer. Elementary students can choose from five lunch options each day. There are two hot entrees, a vegetarian selection, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and chef salad. The middle school and high school add a la carte options, sub sandwiches and a Sabre lunch.

"What we serve for lunch is meant to educate children in terms of eating a healthy and well-balanced diet," Braulick said. "Even if they don't select it, it exposes them to it. They may try it on the 10th time they see it."

Parents can monitor students' eating habits on the Internet. Recipes have been altered to incorporate new Ultragrain flour for pizza crusts, muffins, breads and Danishes.

"We are whittling away at our a la carte offerings. You see smaller cookies and low- fat, high-fiber snacks," Braulick said.

Still, Braulick felt they could learn from RFI's approach. She invited Bixby Daugherty to tour the kitchens and set up training sessions with food service staff. Then she invited him to meet with the student councils at the middle and high schools.

And she let students sample one of his "real food"recipes: Roasted Rosemary Garlic Potatoes. The recipe was Bixby Daugherty's response to the school classic — Tater Tots. He felt the recipe would be a better choice for flavor and nutrition. He was right.

"We made them in February and the kids loved them,"Braulick said. "It's very healthy and very easy to make."

Student connection

Bixby Daugherty visited with Sartell Middle School student council members last week.

At the top of their wish list were new recipes for soup, pasta, main-dish salads and ethnic theme weeks.

Bixby Daugherty got to work. From ingredients on hand, he created a pasta primavera for the staff to sample. At Sartell High School this week, students presented the results of more than 400 student surveys. They gave a thumbs-down to breaded foods, bland vegetables and too many chicken entrees. Thumbs-up went to more variety, including new pastas, soups, salads, stir-fries and vegetarian options. The students' ideas are the basis for the school's next step: developing half a dozen new recipes for the school program.

As head cook Cheryl Freihammer talked with Bixby Daugherty and Braulick, the conversation rapidly moved from tips on getting the most impact when cooking with herbs (saute them in oil) to new recipe ideas to the possibility of creating a school garden where community education classes could grow herbs.

Obstacles to change

RFI will return to the Sartell-St. Stephen schools to continue the conversation several times this spring.

"This isn't something we're going to change overnight,"Bixby Daugherty said.

Federal and state guidelines make menu planning a balancing act. Each school meal must have 30 percent or fewer calories from fats, 10 percent or fewer from saturated fats, two ounces of protein in all entrees and a half a cup of both fruit and vegetables. The cafeteria must serve 15 servings of grains a week.

"My biggest beef is parents who complain about school food and have no idea what they're up against," Bixby Daugherty said. "They're doing a lot right."

Meanwhile, rising food costs limit choices.

"Milk has gone up 10 percent, but lunch prices remain the same," Bixby Daugherty said. "It's crippling schools across the nation right now."

Food service programs are self-sustaining. Students at Sartell middle and high schools pay $2 per meal, a price that hasn't gone up in two years.

The district must also accommodate about 60 different life-threatening food allergies and diabetic students.

"I believe we're doing a really good job in monitoring for each individual child," Braulick said. "We keep kids safe while working with a lot of different constraints."

"This is the toughest job I've ever had," Bixby Daughtery said. "There are so many stipulations."