Experience Food Project will create a host of benefits for students this year

Come and see what’s cooking this year in Vashon School District’s cafeterias. Chef Tom French and the Experience Food Project have joined us to guide our schools and community to implement a nutritious and sustainable school breakfast and lunch program — starting today, the first day of school.

Chef Tom and I will host a community meeting to talk about the transformation of our school lunch program from the typical school menu loaded with fat, food additives and high fructose corn syrup to one of fresh whole foods prepared daily.

Plan to attend if you are a student interested in tasty and healthy food at school, if you are a parent concerned about nutrition, if you are concerned about the rapidly increasing rate of childhood obesity and diabetes, if you have an interest in supporting our local food economy and security or if you just have a passion for healthy living.Vash-on Island will benefit from the experience we had on San Juan Island two years ago when Chef Tom and I piloted a similar project.

We learned that kids really do love tasty, healthy food. We learned that parents care deeply about the food that their children eat. We learned that communities unite together to foster healthy and fit children. We learned that farmers, grocers and politicians will collaborate to support healthy communities, local food security and sustainability.

The Experience Food Project is lots more than a healthy breakfast and lunch at school. Students learn to become “food pioneers” by trying new foods and learning where their food comes from through the chef-in-the-classroom program.

They get “coached” by our staff in the lunch line to try new foods and fresh vegetables. Everyone is invited to community dinners held every four to six weeks at school to foster family mealtimes and community building. The first dinner, sponsored by our PTSA, will be at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 21, in the VHS cafeteria. In October we will hold a harvest festival and prepare our lunch menu with local foods from our school gardens and local farms.

If Vashon students respond the way students on San Juan Island did, we’ll see students more engaged in learning after a healthy breakfast, fewer discipline referrals, better attendance records and a calmer, more respectful school climate.

We’ll also see participation in lunch programs grow from 22 percent to 80 percent and the end of food program deficits (last year it was $20,000). We’ll hear of students cooking at home and families eating together more frequently. And yes, we may even have discover high school students using a bathroom break excuse to get out of class early to be first in the lunch line.

Good food costs more. Lunch prices will increase by 50 cents this year. However, the federal government has relaxed the financial criteria for qualifying for a subsidized lunch, so our school breakfast and lunch program is within reach of every child.

Cooking fresh whole foods requires a radical kitchen makeover with changes in staff job descriptions, kitchen equipment, new menus and vendors.

About 50 percent of the start-up costs for this program have been provided by donations through the “Dreamboat Calendar” sales and the benefit dinners held by the Spice Route Restaurant. Within two weeks, we will secure the additional donations necessary to fully fund this program implementation.

Many of you have stopped me on the street to ask how you can help. We do need volunteers to act as food coaches, serve at community dinners and assist with the many facets of making this change.

I hope you’ll join us at our community meeting next Tuesday evening. Here’s to healthy and productive kids.

— Michael Soltman is the superintendent of the Vashon Island School District.

The community meeting will be at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 7, in the Chautauqua Elementary School cafeteria.

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