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.
This 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.
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.
Some 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.
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.