Reinventing the school lunch

An “extreme makeover” of the school lunch program has meant much healthier fare and greater student participation.  - Susan Riemer/Staff Photo
An “extreme makeover” of the school lunch program has meant much healthier fare and greater student participation.
— image credit: Susan Riemer/Staff Photo

The bell marking the beginning of lunch at Vashon High School hadn’t yet rung one day last week, and already a line of students snaked its way toward the serving area in the cafeteria.

“See that?” asked MJ Hartwell, a career specialist at the school, as she pointed at the line. “That is new.”

AJ Clark was second in line, ready to fill his plate with selections from the day’s offerings: baked chicken, roasted potatoes, sauteed zucchini and carrots and fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts at the salad bar.

“It’s a lot better than it used to be because we’re eating food you would see in someone’s house,” the high school senior said. “It’s not just stuff from the frozen food section.”

Indeed, nutritious food is at the heart of the new breakfast and lunch program in Vashon’s public schools. The food is grown mostly in the Northwest and prepared painstakingly — washed, chopped, sliced, diced, simmered and baked fresh each day in the high school kitchen. It is the opposite of the fare most schools across the nation serve — processed meals high in salt, fat, sugar and additives.

Tom French of the Experience Food Project, a Whidbey Island-based organization overseeing the transition, has called it “an extreme food makeover.”

And at just seven weeks, French and school administrators say, the program is going well. Last year, the school served between 250 and 300 meals a day. Already, those numbers have doubled: As of last week, the district was serving 550 to 600 meals a day, French said.

But that’s still not enough for the district to meet its goal. Superintendent Michael Soltman wants the program to break even, which means 800 of the district’s 1,500 students will need to step up to the steam table and salad bars each day.

Last year, the district subsidized the school lunch program, putting $20,000 from its hard-pressed general fund into the program. The district had to raise prices by 50 cents at all three schools to help cover the costs of the new program; lunch now costs $3.25 at Chautauqua and $3.50 at the middle and high schools. With those funds and money garnered from the district’s new community dinners and donated by Islanders, the district is investing in a make-over of the school lunch program in an effort not only to ensure kids eat better but also to create a program that can pay for itself.

Kitchen manager Lisa Cyra encourages parents of students who have not been eating hot lunches to have the kids give the food a try. “If the rest of the kids bought it even half the time, we’d hit 800,” she said. “We want to feed these kids really, really well, and that comes with the numbers.”

For Soltman, though, the program is about more than food and budgets. Student success is the real goal, he said, and it requires three elements: academic rigor, knowing every child and creating a healthy and nurturing environment.

“This is the third leg of the stool you absolutely have to have if you are dedicated to all students being successful,” he said.

Administrators acknowledge that they’ve encountered a few kinks along the way. In the beginning, the lines were sometimes long and slow-moving, and occasionally, they’ve run out of food, French said. Those issues have been dealt with, he said, with more changes in the works.

As in the business world, he noted, it makes sense to see what customers want if you are trying to lure more in, and he has been talking to kids to learn what they would like to see in the program.

“We’re putting a lot of emphasis on customer service,” he said.

To that end, soon they will be adding a “grab and go” option at the high school that may take some of the pressure off of the regular lunch line and enable those kids who are in a hurry to get a quick, nutritious lunch.

When district officials gave the green light to this program, they knew there would be between $40,000 and $50,000 needed for the transition. Roughly half of that amount has already been met through donations, Soltman said, and he expects donations will cover the rest of the transitional costs. He is not expecting to tap the general fund for this program at all.

Some of the upfront money has gone to putting the right infrastructure in place. Not all of the ovens were working, and those have been repaired, French said. The salad bars at the high school and McMurray have been replaced, and new steam tables have been ordered, which will work better and speed up the lines, he said. French also bought some new equipment for the kitchen, including a tilt braiser, for making large amounts of soups, stews and sauces, and a state-of-the art food processor, which came last week and was warmly welcomed by the kitchen staff, who had been chopping most everything by hand.

“If you’re going to do 800 lunches, you’re going to need some help,” Cyra said.

As dedicated as Soltman is to this program, he noted it is a challenging area for superintendents because it is often completely outside their area of expertise. If a teacher is out, he said, a superintendent could fill in in the classroom. Not so in the kitchen.

“Superintendents will do just about anything to avoid dealing with food service,” he said. “We don’t get it.”

It’s a good thing, then, that the two women who are heading up the kitchen definitely do get it. A visit with them upends the stereotype of matronly lunch ladies, hairnets and all. Indeed, both are well-known experts in their field.

Mardi Ljubich is the district’s new food service coordinator. Known to many as the owner of Shefidgets Catering, Ljubich cooks, plans menus, trains staff, orders food and will soon take on more administrative tasks, including overseeing the new Chef-in-the-Classroom project, which will bring in professional chefs to visit classes.

Cyra, the kitchen manager and another well-known Island chef and caterer, is a graduate of the California Culinary Academy and has worked in a multitude of food establishments, from a fishing lodge in Alaska to the Four Seasons.

The two currently oversee four kitchen assistants. Two more cooks will soon be brought on to help with the task of feeding so many kids each day.

Their dedication to serving high-quality food was on full display on a recent visit to the kitchen. Ljubich, who said she routinely works 65-hour weeks, several of those hours off the clock, became gleeful when a distributor dropped off a box of egg product — eggs that had been cracked and were thus easy to cook with — from cage-free hens.

And Cyra, whose credentials are also such that one might not expect to find her in a traditional school cafeteria, had high praise for her new position and the impact it can have on kids’ lives.

“This is my dream job,” she said.

The menus are a collaboration among the chefs, Cyra said, with she and Ljubich cooking from their own recipes or their simple culinary know-how. They must follow guidelines the U.S. Department of Agriculture sets out for schools, dictating how much protein, dairy, fruits and vegetables school meals must offer. And they do must do so on a tight budget.

They’re also searching for creative ways to slip healthy items into their daily concoctions. One day recently, Ljubich noted, she made scalloped potatoes with a layer of rainbow chard in them; no one seemed to notice or protest its presence, she said. She is thinking about tinkering with that comfort food classic, macaroni and cheese, surreptitiously sliding in pureed white beans to replace some of the dairy.

The staff is also incorporating vegetarian options — but without using the word, lest it scare away would-be diners. And with ample vegetable side dishes and a full salad bar — with nuts and abundant salad bar fixings — those students who are vegetarians can always get nutritious meals, Ljubich said.

“We are feeding our kids the way they should be fed,” Cyra said.

While there has been a learning curve for everyone in the project, the kitchen assistants have seen their jobs from previous years transformed into something completely new. All the staff who wanted to stay on did so, with additional training to make sure they were up to the considerable task, French said.

When talking about previous years, those now involved give a nod of gratitude to Claudia Campbell, who retired this year after many years of running the food service. She brought in as many healthful changes as she could, Soltman said, but kids often gravitated to the less nutritious choices, something they can no longer do. Soda, for instance, is no longer available, and dessert does not come with the meal.

“We eliminated un-healthy choices,” Soltman said.

He and French consider the project a pilot, and staff is keeping meticulous track of what works and what doesn’t. They hope their program will inspire other districts, as well as the USDA and the state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, to support the move towards healthier lunch programs — critical at a time when obesity, diabetes and other nutrition-related ailments have become something of a crisis among the nation’s youth, they note.

“We want to be a model of showing it can be done. There are no excuses,” Soltman said.

At Chautauqua, though, where the district’s youngest diners eat, the complicated matters of budgets, building a lifetime of good nutrition and changing a part of the nation’s food system, seem far off. The kids’ focus during a recent visit last week was simple: enjoying lunch.

“They should write down the recipes for every lunch they serve and give it to the kids,” said second-grader Catherine Brown after she finished her made-from-scratch pizza.

At a nearby table, third-grader Jack Zimmerman was happy to share his opinion, too.

“This food rocks!” he said. Speaking for his friends on either side, he added, “When all three of us are done, there’s nothing on our trays except for garbage.”

Community dinners support good food in the schools

Frequent community dinners are part of the new food program at the schools. In part, they are a fundraiser for the program, but they are also intended as a time for the community to gather together and enjoy good food and each other.

“They are a fundraiser and a friend raiser,” said Tom French, who is in charge of revamping the school lunch program.

The next one is set for Nov. 17.

Combined, the September and October dinners raised more than $4,000 for the lunch program. Suggested donations are $10.

The Vashon Island Grower’s Association sponsored the most recent dinner, on Oct. 19. They provided much of the food for the meal and set up a small farmers market in the cafeteria.

The room was full for the duration of the two-hour dinner, according to superintendent Michael Soltman, and patrons enjoyed the food, market and live music.

“We really want the schools to be a gathering place,” Soltman added.

French agreed, stressing Islanders’ role in supporting the new program. “The thing that makes a program like this work is community, “ he said.

People interested in helping with the food program are welcome to volunteer with the community dinners, Soltman said, as volunteers are always needed for them.

For more information, call Donna Donnelly at 463-2121, ext. 7.

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