Six Back-to-School Lunch Spots: Where I would take Julia Child for a bite (Part 1, Western states)

As a devoted fan of Julia Child since the days of the earliest days of The French Chef on black and white TV, I know that she was always a culinary and educational trendsetter. Back in 1995, she was a co-founder of Days of Taste®, a national discovery-based program of The American Institute of Wine & Food for 4th and 5th graders. “In this age of fast and frozen food, we want to teach school children about real food – where it is grown and how it is produced – so that they can develop an understanding and appreciation of how good food is supposed to taste.”

Last week was the 101st anniversary of Julia Child’s birth – an event that I always honor personally and professionally. As I was updating the daily entries on School Meals That Rock, I realized how much Julia Child would love to see the very real revolution that has take place in school meals. Fresh, local, lovingly prepared and beautifully served breakfasts, lunches, snacks and even suppers are served across the USA, not just in a few foodie enclaves like Portland (OR) and Berkeley (CA), but in a wide range of school nutrition programs with a real commitment to good food for hungry students.

If I could do some culinary time travel and take Julia to lunch, as Bob Spitz was lucky enough to do in Dearie, here are six school cafeteria hot spots we would hit in the Western states. These schools vary widely in location, demographics and staff training, but all have one thing in common: They are among the growing trend of districts dedicated to serving made-from-scratch food, supporting local farmers and ranchers, and teaching children how good food tastes.

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Lake Stevens, Washington, Mollie Langum, Nutrition Supervisor

Mollie and her staff are true farm-to-table champions, as showcased in their “I Made A Rainbow at the Salad Bar” event. Washington-grown produce is not just for special occasions though; it’s an every day item in Lake Stevens cafeterias (just east of the metro Seattle area). With the right kind of “peer pressure,” students help promote produce, with giant strawberry costumes and as 5th grade fruit/veggie ambassadors.

ImageBethel, Oregon, Jennie Kolpak, RD, Nutrition Supervisor

Down I 5, in Eugene, Oregon, Jennie has developed a very impressive Harvest-of-the-Month program. Willamette Valley apples, pears, melons, carrots, bok choy and more show up on Bethel menus. This made-to-order Willamette High School panini with balsamic marinated veggies is just one delicious example. This year, they are going “hyper-local” with a new commercial size greenhouse on school grounds.

ImageSolvang, California, Chef Bethany Markee, Viking Café

Trading fine dining for a cafeteria, Bethany leads a Central California school food revolution – as this Honey Roasted Organic Fennel for the salad bar clearly shows. Thanks to a partnership with Santa Ynez Valley Fruit and Vegetable Rescue, the Viking Café is able to regularly serve fresh, organic produce and thanks to a new school herb garden, the seasonings will soon be very local as well.

ImageChandler, Arizona, Catherine Giza, Director and Wes Delbridge, RD, Supervisor

I bet Julia would appreciate the high-tech side of this large multi-cultural district with its trend-setting iPhone app. And, I know that she would be equally impressed with their personal touch on the 250 hand-tossed pizzas with whole grain, made-from-scratch dough and homemade marinara sauce!

ImageProvo, Utah, Jenilee McComb, Director and Colleen Dietz, Assistant

Breakfast or lunch, Provo’s cafeterias serve freshly prepared, locally sourced meals to the lucky students in this mid-size district just south of Salt Lake City. The school nutrition professionals in each school take justifiable pride in their award-winning program and the Facebook page proudly lists the farms and farmers who grow food for their kitchen. Provo students know where their food comes from!

ImageEnnis, Montana, Tammy Wham, Director and Natasha Hegmann, FoodCorps

It might take us a bit longer to get to Ennis, a southwestern Montana community of less than 1,000 with about 400 students K-12. However, I can guarantee that it would be worth the drive! Tammy and her cooks make nearly everything from scratch and thanks to Montana FoodCorps they now have a greenhouse and school garden (with club and summer camp) for incredible, edible produce year-round!

True School Nutrition HEROES: Excellence Beyond the Regulations

There’s been lots of talk recently about how The School Day Just Got Healthier with USDA’s Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs that went into effect on July 1, 2012. Media stories abound with a generally positive tone – although many reporters wonder if students will actually eat the healthier options. I wrote about the new guidelines right here on August 24 in USDA New-trition Guidelines for School Meals: Business as usual – and a whole new ballgame.

Fortunately for students, teachers, families, farmers and ranchers, some of the best news in school nutrition has nothing to do with the regulations! Incredibly positive things are happening in kitchens, cafeterias, and schoolyards from coast-to-coast – thanks to dedicated and visionary school nutrition heroes. Sometimes they make the headlines, but often as not, they labor quietly in their districts without attracting much fanfare or hoopla.
Here’s a taste of truly delicious news from four districts on the frontiers of school nutrition excellence. Literally spread from coast-to-coast, these districts are focused on serving the freshest, best tasting meals to students in the most positive, pleasant atmosphere possible. This is what we need — to get nutrient-rich food into kids; it is only nutrition WHEN they eat or drink it!

More school cafeteria makeovers

The typical noisy school cafeteria – with an “eat it and beat it” environment – is not conducive to trying new foods or enjoying a balanced meal. Cafeteria renovations, like those in Palm Beach County, Florida, often focus on creating a trendy café atmosphere. At McKay Elementary School in Beaverton, Oregon – with support from anOregon Dairy Council Fuel Up To Play 60 grant, the school nutrition program went a step farther, making their cafeteria decorations match their nutrition marketing and education efforts, to help students “Eat a Rainbow.”

More school garden produce served in cafeterias

In some areas, school gardens are becoming almost the norm. New Jersey could be called the “School Garden State” with more than 242 schools growing vegetables and fruits for nutrition and/or education. Denver Public Schools Food and Nutrition Services, with support from urban agricultural groups, has taken school gardening to a whole new level. As recently announced on their Facebook page: “I am extremely proud to announce our 2012 Garden To Cafeteria schools! DPS Food and Nutrition Services will be purchasing produce from the 21 school gardens listed. Your students will then see that produce in their lunchroom salad bars! “ Now that is hyper-local!
 
More chefs in school kitchens

Thanks to First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Initiative, Chefs Move to Schools, founded in May 2010, has meant a real upgrade in the culinary skills of school nutrition professionals. Chefs provide culinary boot camps for school cooks in several states and encourage “junior chefs” through many school assembly programs, like the one with Chef Virginia Willis in Marietta, Georgia. In Maplewood Richmond Heights School District (MO), Chef Robert Rusan has truly set a higher bar for school food. It’s hard to describe the comprehensiveness of the MRHS Healthy Foods program in a short paragraph. Just imagine a school nutrition program that makes its own fresh mozzarella cheese, builds an outdoor pizza oven, and harvests aqua-ponic lettuce.

More student involvement in school nutrition

While all the schools described so far involved students to some degree, Slater Jr. High School in Pawtucket, Rhode Island and Foodservice Director Solange Morrisette, have kicked it up a notch with their Fruit and Vegetable Ambassador program. According to the USDA blog post, “the students came up with several fun ways to get their peers excited about eating fruits and vegetables. These ideas included the fruit and veggie taste testing, a fruit and veggie eating contest, a cafeteria remodel, and creating rap songs about healthy eating.” In this photo, guest farmer Shelly Pezza taught the future ambassadors about the benefits of eating local produce – which will soon show up on their salad bars.
Dayle Hayes, MS, RD (Registered Dietitian), is Past-Chair of the School Nutrition Services Dietetic Practice Group (DPG) of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She helps agencies and organizations create healthier school environments across the country. You can follow her onFacebook and Twitter, and read in-depth analysis of school issues on her blog School Meals That Rock.