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Chef Fowler of Mandolin reimagines school lunch

Guests at Mandolin, a restaurant in the Hayes Barton neighborhood of Raleigh, may have recently noticed a new item on the menu: the $12 chicken poke bowl with kale, pineapple, cucumber, radish and yum yum sauce.

The dish, created by Chef Sean Fowler, was designed in collaboration with the North Carolina PTA for their reimagining school meals event. The event challenged four local chefs to create their own school meal that adhered to the strict nutrition standards and price constraints that all school meals must follow.

According to Fowler, that was no easy task. While the chefs were given a budget of about $2 per meal, most school nutrition directors have only about $1.30 per meal.

“We gave ourselves a little bit more money, and part of that was to make the point that with a few more pennies, we could make some really, really good school lunches for kids,” said Fowler.

Beyond cost, the chefs had to work with a narrow list of ingredients, and had to create balanced dishes that meet strict USDA nutrition guidelines. And then there’s the final test: designing something delicious that kids will actually eat.

Doing any of those things I think is not that hard, but trying to do all three at once is a challenge — even for a professional chef,” said Fowler.

When looking for a trendy yet healthy dish to make, Fowler settled on a poke bowl. In the bowl, he used ingredients that are abundantly grown in North Carolina — including cucumbers, radishes, soy beans, and kale. From there, he added basic staples that are already found in school pantries, like brown rice and chicken. 

Childhood hunger and school meals are issues that Fowler has kept close at heart throughout his time as a chef.

It’s a necessity everyone needs — a safe place to live, food, and water. These are things that everyone should have,” said Fowler. “To us, I think it was a moral issue.”

Beyond participating in the PTA’s event, Fowler decided to add the dish to his menu, and is donating all the proceeds from that dish to the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle’s backpack buddies program that delivers food to children to eat on the weekends. 

For Fowler, having the item on the menu was also a way to start a conversation with his guests about the realities facing their community.

There are house spending bills in the North Carolina legislature on a pretty regular basis to increase funding and they never pass because I don’t think there’s the political groundswell among constituents to really support this cause,” said Fowler.

“I think if people were informed about it, it’s kind of a no-brainer. It’s not a partisan issue, it’s a making sure our kids have enough food to eat issue.”

The recipe for Fowler’s school meal, along with recipes from the other three chefs, are being made available for use in schools across North Carolina.

Clarification:A previous edition of this post stated that Fowler collaborated with Wake County PTA. The article has been changed to reflect the overarching organizer of the event — the North Carolina PTA.

Analisa Sorrells

Analisa Sorrells is a Master in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School and previously worked as chief of staff and associate director of policy for EducationNC.

Robert Kinlaw

Robert was director of multimedia for EducationNC. He is a journalist and award-winning documentary filmmaker in the Triangle. Robert attended both public and private grade schools in North Carolina and graduated from the Media and Journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. He has produced video content for The News & Observer, ABC11-WTVD, UNC-Chapel Hill, The News Reporter and more. His short documentary Princess Warrior received an Excellence in Filmmaking award at the 2017 Carrboro Film Festival. Visit his website at