After more than 20 years as a restaurateur, Lynn Loflin took a break – of sorts. While working on her organic farm in the Catskills, she had long thought about the food system and the lack of fresh and healthy food available in restaurants and public service organizations such as senior centers and youth programs. Since 1999, Newton Farm had served as a source of fresh food for her Manhattan restaurant, Miracle Grill, which has since closed. The farm currently distributes fresh produce to various eateries in the city, but Loflin wanted to do more to make a difference. In late 2011 she heard about a job opening in the nonprofit sector that was too good to pass up.
A friend at the Children’s Aid Society, where Loflin served as an instructor for their Smart Foods/Healthy Food initiative, told her Lenox Hill Neighborhood House was looking for a new executive chef to plan meals for their two senior centers, a women’s shelter and a children’s Head Start program – a very tall order. Better still, the nonprofit, which has a staff of 175 and an endowment of approximately $20 million, wanted to expand the number of meals it provided while replacing frozen and processed foods with fresh, seasonal, nutrient-dense meals.
Loflin applied for the position, and her expertise impressed Warren Scharf, executive director at Lenox Hill Neighborhood House. “What stood out then about Lynn, which stands out now today, she has both a very diverse food background and is committed to the things we are committed to,” he said. “She cares about social justice.”
In the five years since Loflin took over as executive chef, Lenox Hill Neighborhood House added breakfast and dinner at the senior centers, which are now open for three meals per day, 365 days per year. Previously the centers were closed on holidays.
The women’s shelter, which had meals prepared by Lenox Hill five days per week and outside catering on Tuesdays and Sundays, now receives three fresh meals prepared in-house every day. The kitchen also prepares three meals per day on weekdays for children in the Head Start program.
In total, Loflin’s kitchen, staffed with 11 people, serves 400,000 meals per year and uses fresh, local fruits, vegetables, grains and lean meats whenever possible.
Other nonprofits took note of these improvements and asked Loflin how to transition from typical institutional food – frozen and processed – to healthier, seasonal meals. “We kept getting phone calls, especially from agencies we report to and also other nonprofits, that were interested in doing this but felt they couldn’t for a lot of reasons. Most people say cost,” said the executive chef.
The interest in Loflin and Lenox Hill’s methods spurred the nonprofit to launch The Teaching Kitchen in November 2015. The program is a three-day workshop followed by three months of technical assistance that helps nonprofits incrementally and affordably shift to providing clients with healthier, fresher meals. Loflin developed four areas of focus: menus and recipes; staff; facilities; and vendors and ingredients.
Loflin explained that even a simple change in a recipe from something like frozen broccoli to fresh broccoli requires a lot of planning. Staff need to be trained to cook the fresh ingredient, which requires a different type of pan and refrigerator storage space as opposed to freezer space. Fresh broccoli can be more difficult to find locally, creates more garbage and has a shorter shelf life, meaning more frequent deliveries are needed.
“That’s the domino effect from receiving it to garbage,” Loflin said.
But cost isn’t necessarily the biggest concern, according to Loflin and Scharf. “You’re going to eat. The question is whether your food is good and healthy or poorly made and unhealthy.”
The Neighborhood House did need to make some facilities upgrades, including renovations to a 1,200-square-foot commercial kitchen in its building on East 70th Street. But according to Scharf, getting support to make renovations and transition to healthier meals wasn’t difficult. Scharf and the board of directors at Lenox Hill agreed spending money differently on food should be a priority if it meant meals would be healthier – and according to Scharf, a growing interest in where food comes from aided the fundraising effort. “It’s a very topical item,” said Scharf.
Loflin explained that raw produce and meats, though fairly inexpensive compared with processed foods, cost more in terms of labor. Preparing unprocessed ingredients for 400,000 meals takes time and skill. Loflin tries to balance rising labor costs by infusing more seasonal produce into her menus to offset costs. While some people may not be used to eating these types of foods frequently, like winter squash and turnips, seasonal foods are fresh and are more likely to be available from local vendors.
Along with more seasonal fruits and vegetables, the executive chef began offering smaller meat portions and more fresh salad, much to the chagrin of some of her senior clients.
“Initially there was kind of a revolution.” Loflin said. “I realized I had gone overboard and shrunk the meat portions from like a 12 oz. chicken breast to a 6 oz.”
To compensate, she began to vary meat types from meal to meal and planned larger portions every so often to keep clients happy. Lunch one day might consist of baked tilapia with mushrooms, peppers and tomatoes, barley and butternut squash, while on another day it could be a shepherd’s pie with beef and turkey, plated alongside romaine, red cabbage and apple salad.Generally, the seniors are quite satisfied with the changes.
“The food is very good. It’s well-balanced,” said Bill La Salle, who has been going to the center for the past few years.
Natasha Hymovitz, who goes to the center for lunch and dinner every day, can’t carry groceries up to her fourth-floor walk-up. She said the meals at Lenox Hill have allowed her to “maintain her weight,” and she recognized the staff works hard to make the food “well-balanced and beautiful.”
Hymovitz also recalled speaking with Loflin early on during her tenure as executive chef. “I told her, ‘You cook with love, and it shows in your food.’”
Loflin thinks the work being done through The Teaching Kitchen and the subsequent work carried out by the participating nonprofits will pay off in the long run.
“Even if we wanted to serve local food every meal and could afford to do so, the distribution chains aren’t there to do that” she said. “As we change and train other organizations and other organizations decide to do this without us training them, incrementally the food shed will build up to a point that New York City could be provided with a lot of local food.”