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School district launches a new food program, offering up only healthy foods

Gone are the days of tater tots and chicken nuggets as the entree du jour at Vashon’s public schools.

Under a plan crafted by Vashon Island School District Superintendent Michael Soltman, the district will serve up only healthful, non-processed foods when the new academic year begins in two weeks.

Soltman signed a contract last week partnering with a nonprofit called the Experience Food Project to bring his plan to fruition. But the superintendent will not be charting a new course: Soltman worked with the Whidbey-based organization to revamp food services at San Juan Island’s public schools when he helmed the school district there.

On Vashon, as in the San Juans, he said he has little choice. The current school lunch program is undersubscribed and as a result costs the district $20,000 a year to subsidize. If this approach flies, he said, participation will increase and the school lunch program will once again pay for itself.

“We have no choice. We have to do this. The program is losing money, and the community is looking for healthy alternatives,” he said.

Soltman said that when he implemented the program in the San Juans, participation climbed dramatically — from 28 percent to 83 percent. On Vashon, where participation hovers at around 23 percent, he’s looking for a similar spike in participation — an increase in numbers that will be essential if this new program is to pencil out.

“We need to get people invested and involved in this program,” he said. “We’ll serve really good food. But that means people will have to support it.”

Lunch costs will increase 50 cents at the three schools: At Chautauqua, a meal will cost $3.25; at McMurray Middle School and Vashon High School, meals will cost $3.50.

Tom French, who heads the Experience Food Project, said the new food program will feature what he called whole foods; items with high-fructose corn syrup or additives in them will no longer be served, nor will the district offer up processed foods.

A sample menu from the San Juans includes shepherd’s pie with mashed potatoes and local beef, African chicken with couscous and fajitas with onions and peppers. The Vashon program will also entail a full-service salad bar, he said.

French, who has worked with several school districts and other government agencies in the region, called the effort at Vashon “an extreme food makeover.”

“We’re going to hold ourselves to a very high standard,” he said.

The new food services program, French and Soltman said, will be complemented by a food education program at the public schools. The district, for instance, will have a “chef in the classroom” program, where a local chef will introduce kids to foods they may not be familiar with.

There will also be a Harvest Celebration Week in October and occasional community dinners where residents from across the Island can come together for a healthy meal in support of the new program, Soltman said.

Soltman, however, is still putting together the funding for the program. It will take about $40,000 to $50,000 in upfront costs to get the program to a point where it is expected to become self-sustaining, he said. He has some of those funds in hand already — thanks to a fundraiser the Spice Route restaurant held for the school district last year as well as last year’s sale of the “dreamboat calendars.” He plans to talk to a handful of potential donors in the next two weeks, people who he believes will step forward to support the effort.

Another fundraiser at the Spice Route today, Aug. 25, will provide additional seed money, he said.

But Soltman said he’s confident the program will take off. Support is already strong, he said. People who have heard about it, he said, “are wildly enthusiastic. ... People are stopping me in the streets to ask about it.”

Eat for a cause

Spice Route Cuisine of India will offer up a portion of all of its proceeds from lunch and dinner today to the Vashon Island School District, which will direct those funds the district’s new food program. The restaurant is open from 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.

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