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School Lunch Program Goes Local, Safely

A school district in Washington state has ditched frozen French fries and chicken fingers this year in favor of fresh fare. Not only are meals now made from scratch daily, but produce grown by local farmers will soon be featured on the menu.

farmschoolveggies-featured.jpgThis fall, the Vashon Island School District, serving two islands adjacent to Seattle, implemented a new, health-focused food program that has turned kitchen staff into chefs and students into diners.

School meals are now prepared using only fresh ingredients, and are served the day they are made. New menus have been created to reflect a balanced diet, and cafeteria workers have been trained in how to cook these items rather than reheat food from a freezer.

Under the new system, all food is prepared at Vashon High School and then delivered to the district’s elementary and middle schools, so that all 1,500 students in the school district have the option of purchasing a homemade breakfast or lunch.

The project is spearheaded by chef Tom French, founder of the non-profit organization Experience Food Project, which works to bring healthy, sustainable food systems to Washington schools. The Project started in the San Juan islands, and has since expanded to other state school districts.

French explains that a school-meal overhaul like the one taking place on Vashon does not happen overnight. It takes about three years and affects not just kitchen staff but the whole school system. The administration must approve every change. The accounting department has to adjust its budget to keep meal prices low, and janitorial staff must keep kitchen facilities, now used to process raw foods, sterile.

As for the cafeteria workers themselves, French says they undergo extensive training with practiced chefs to learn how to cook, rather than reheat, for large groups. For many of them, this requires learning from scratch. One day, French says, he was at a school in a major Seattle suburb demonstrating how to make soup and noticed the kitchen workers watching him in amazement. It turned out that none of them had known what the kitchen’s steam-jacketed kettle was or how to use it.

Food Safety–Now a Bigger Deal

One of the greatest concerns when switching from prepared food to preparing food is safety. Handling raw ingredients rather than pre-cooked foods means food safety concerns now extend beyond keeping food at the right temperature.

“It’s a whole new ballgame,” French says. “You’re not taking sterile food out of a package. You’re dealing with perishables. You’re dealing with real chicken, you’re dealing with beef.”

Luckily, kitchen staffers and kids are in safe hands. French is a certified ServeSafe instructor, meaning he is qualified to train food service workers on safe food handling techniques. Mardi Ljubich, the district’s new Food Services Coordinator, also operates a catering business on Vashon, and is therefore extremely familiar with food safety protocol.

Ljubich says all preparation and serving techniques at Vashon High School are in line with HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points), food safety regulations focused on identifying hazards in a food preparation environment.

Student Involvement

All these changes in Vashon’s meal program mean nothing if students don’t eat the new food. This is why Experience Food Project focuses heavily on fostering appreciation for the new menu.

For younger students, the project has developed 13 classroom education programs that meet Washington state educational requirements, so that they fold easily into the class curriculum.
However, with the older kids, “you really have to market to them,” explains French. “We take suggestions, we have focus groups, we have tasting groups. Because they can take [the lunch] or not.”

And the students are taking. The school now sells 650-700 meals a day, up from around just 250 at the beginning of the school year.

French asked one girl her reaction to this year’s lunches as compared to those of the past. Her response was, “I feel respected.”

Putting Local Produce Into the Mix

But students will not be the only beneficiaries of Vashon’s meal service makeover. The local economy is set to get a boost from the program as well. The school district is now working with the Vashon Island Growers’ Association (VIGA) to incorporate fruits and vegetables grown by local farmers into school menus.
Twelve farms have already submitted letters of intent to sell to the schools.

One farmer even got an early start on the initiative. Joe Yarkin, owner of Sun Island Farms, recently sold 20 pounds of sunchokes to the school district, and consequently contributed to his own kids’ school lunch.

When his daughters got home that afternoon, Yarkin asked how they had liked the sunchokes. “Ella, the smaller one, said, ‘mine were undercooked!’ ” Yarkin says. “But Avery, the older one, said ‘mine were perfect!’ ”

Farmers have a variety of crops to bring to the table, including some that will require creativity on behalf of the menu planners. Nettles are the first crop farmers will have to offer this spring, followed by dandelion greens and kale.

“I don’t know if nettles have ever been served at a school lunch before,” says Mark Musick, a Vashon local and co-founder of the Tilth Association, an organic farming movement. Musick is working with VIGA, farmers and the school to facilitate the farm-to-school market.

For now, the school district will make up a small percentage of farmers’ sales, because it will buy at wholesale prices, which offer a smaller profit for farmers than retail outlets. The hope, though, is that by delivering produce to a wider audience, farmers will expand their consumer base on the island and eventually stimulate the local economy.

 

Training for Safety

In order to sell to the school district, however, farmers must have a guaranteed safe product. While bigger farms are almost always Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) certified, small farmers often do not have the resources to obtain this type of training and certification.

 

Vashon farmers must develop their own food safety standards and practices so that they can ensure the district that their products are safe. Farmers are currently working with Musick, the state Department of Agriculture and other experts to develop these standards.

In March, farmers will participate in a workshop to receive basic food safety training and discuss what they see as realistic goals for safe production. They will also receive advice on cooperative marketing and product liability insurance.

The training will be jointly sponsored by Food Safety News and VIGA.

vashonprogram-featured.jpgSome farmers have already taken measures to improve food safety. Yarkin, for example,  is using his engineering background to construct a washing facility. The floor will consist of concrete poured over old hog wire and recycled pipes. A trough around the edges will divert runoff, and other recycled materials will eventually make walls and a roof for the structure.

He is also making his own walk-in refrigerator on the foundation of the property’s original house, long since burned down. He has double-insulated the room, making it more airtight than an average fridge, and will control temperature with a thermostat attached to an air conditioner in the wall.

He says the only worry now is the trees surrounding the homemade walk-in, which provide great shade, but have been known to crash to the ground in even the calmest of weather.

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This article is the first in a series on the Vashon Island School District’s new meal program. The next installment, at the beginning of March,  will cover the farmer food safety training. 

© Food Safety News
  • Doc Mudd

    “Yarkin, for example, is using his engineering background to construct a washing facility…He is also making his own refrigerator on the foundation of the property’s original house, long since burned down…He says the only worry now is the trees surrounding the homemade fridge, which provide great shade, but have been known to crash to the ground in even the calmest of weather.”
    Uhhh…OK, I’m looking at the photo of the cleverly engineered blue tarp sheltering a mudhole (Lord, I hope it’s only a mudhole and not some sort of Mother Earth News green latrine). Now, I’m reading about the school’s safety precautions:
    “In order to sell to the school district, however, farmers must have a guaranteed safe product. While bigger farms are almost always Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) certified, small farmers often do not have the resources to obtain this type of training and certification…farmers will participate in a workshop to receive basic food safety training and discuss what they see as realistic goals for safe production. They will also receive advice on cooperative marketing and product liability insurance.”
    Jumping Jebus, this is all such a bad idea.
    We’re gonna have the shifty makeshift amateur food producers “discuss what they see as realistic goals for safe production”, we’ll gently offer ‘em a little “advice” then it’s Yeeee-haaawww – let ‘er rip, boys – bring on the hobby farm food.
    I hope they at least stock extra toilet paper (the good kind, industrial strength) in the school restrooms and set up a few extra cots in the nurse’s office. A couple pallets of military surplus air sickness bags might come in handy, too.

  • Gabrielle Meunier

    This is a concept whose time is finally come. With the obesity rate at an all time high, shame on the US for feeding our kids school lunches for so long that were so processed. Thank goodness there is change in the air.

  • john

    This is a great project both for the kids and the community. The reader who assumes that food grown on small farms is inherently less safe than industrially processed food forgets that all of our serious food illness incidents have been caused by the mass producers -and primarily with meat products, not vegetable.

  • Nicole Wright

    This is a great idea however I have one huge question: how are the schools paying for the food? Our school kitchen prepares marvelous lunches. I had homemade potato soup yesterday. The meat was processed and I am sure delivered from a whole seller. Our kitchen is already over budget and over staffed (according to the state government). We are funded for ONE kitchen employee for a school of 300+. No school can run with one employee. Budgets and funding are a major issue. I see only the wealthiest communities buying into this. Our community also mainly grows wheat and seed peas. That is not a great school lunch unless you are a ruminant. I see that the author and this school have the right idea, however it is not realistic. We can work on the obesity issues from other directions. Each school lunch has a restricted calorie count, and vending machines can be shut off during school hours or removed all together.

  • Doc Mudd

    Oh, here’s a delightfully original tidbit from the article I can politely acknowledge and fawn over a little bit:
    “Nettles are the first crop farmers will have to offer this spring, followed by dandelion greens and kale.”
    That’s nettles as in “stinging nettles”, a stalwart spoke in Mother Nature’s business-like wheel of amazing biodiversity. A simply charming weedy invasive species that I became intimately acquainted with during the many educational nature hikes of my precociously inquisitive childhood, sponsoring a wonderfully vivid nostalgia for stinging nettles to this very day, evoking a sentiment that ranks right up there with my very fondest memories of poison ivy.
    Lo, as a child I fear I may sometimes have lacked sufficient imagination, for it never occurred to me to eat the stinging, welt-raising, eye-burning sons-of-b…[oh, sorry, no cursing - got a little carried away in the nostalgic rapture, there]. Anyway, here’s the poop:
    http://www.ehow.com/how_4507234_get-food-from-nettle-plant.html
    “I don’t know if nettles have ever been served at a school lunch before,” says Mark Musick, a Vashon local and co-founder of the Tilth Association, an organic farming movement.”
    Much too humble, of course, Mark is obviously a most insightful and optimistic food safety expert! He correctly apprehends that, for some unfathomable reason, stinging nettles have not been a staple food in our school lunchrooms, until now. Surely, the benefits are incalculable!
    Harvesting the stinging nettles, enough for an entire school, will most unquestionably serve as a wonderous stimulant, an elixir, a spring tonic to the local economy. Envision, if you will, a cadre of noble gloved foragers stooped but soldiering steadily onward, nothin’ but elbows and a…uh, er…elbow to elbow in quiet community fellowship, bathed in golden sunlight as they solemnly and gingerly reap nature’s generous bounty of lovely mother-burnin’ stinging nettles. Honest laborers all; pure of heart, exhausted, itching, welted and replete in their sure knowledge that by their own heroic efforts on the field of honor that day many deserving children will be nourished for yet another meal.
    And such sensible fare for cafeteria dining!!
    http://www.chow.com/food-news/55492/how-do-you-eat-nettles-without-getting-stung/
    “If you are handling nettles raw at home, wearing rubber dish gloves should do the trick, although the plants might be less liable to cause any harm because they’ve already been handled and the needles may have been crushed. Just remember, says Griffin, “this is not a raw food. Nettles are always to be cooked.” And don’t worry if you see clusters of light green and yellow things on the nettles that look like aphids. Most likely they are not. “I can’t tell you how many times people have screamed, ‘There are bugs in them!’” says Griffin. “If you look close you’d see that they are tiny little flowers.”
    Oohhh and such an etherial dining experience; a “nutty, earthy, spinachlike flavor” the excited little waifs will cut ahead in line for!
    Oh my goodness gracious, the darling school children are in for such a singularly delightful gustatory surprise when nettle season opens in just a few short months. Just like Christmas morning, only better!
    This is all so, so exciting!!!