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.


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!

New-trition on a School Lunch Tray: What Would Julia Say?

Two things have been top of my mind recently: First, as students head back-to-school, USDA’s new guidelines for school meals have begun to “hit the trays” in cafeterias nationwide. Secondly, foodies everywhere have been celebrating the 100th birthday of Julia Child’s with a veritable banquet of of quotes, tributes and reminiscences.

While I know that Julia Child commented on fast food (in fact, we agree that In-N-Out Burger is our favorite chain), I cannot find any specific opinions she expressed about school lunch. Perhaps that’s because national attention was just beginning to focus on school food when she passed away in 2004. However, based on several of her famous quotes, I have decided that Julia Child would be quite pleased with current school food trends – and would admire the work of my favorite school nutrition heroes as well.

You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces – just good food from fresh ingredients. This simple salad from the Power-Up Cafe at Cypress-Fairbanks ISD just outside Houston, Texas, elegantly illustrates the trend toward fresh ingredients in schools. The staff included Romaine lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, jicama and chickpeas (tossed in a chili lime seasoning) to meet the new guidelines for greater vegetable variety on school lunch trays. Now, all they need is a name for the salad; so far my vote is with Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. I wonder what Julia would have called it – besides gorgeous!

How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like Kleenex? I know that Julia would have loved Peggy Lawrence, Director of Food Services in Rockdale, Georgia (and the 2012 Georgia SNA Director of the Year). In her district of 16,000 students, many whole grain bread products are baked in each school’s kitchen. Peggy knows that the aroma of made-from-scratch, no-Kleenex-here cinnamon and sandwich rolls brings students and staff into the cafeteria for freshly baked, whole grain goodness. It also helps her menus exceed the new standards for half of all grains products to be whole grain this year.

Peggy and Julia would certainly agree that “… no one is born a great cook, one learns by doing.” That’s why Peggy and other savvy directors spend plenty of training time – in groups and one-on-one – to insure that the best possible products are served in their schools. From coast-to-coast, school nutrition professionals have been upgrading their culinary skills to roll out the complex USDA Nutrition Standards for School Meals, with colorful eye-appleaing menus and the nutrient-richness that children need – minus the excess fat, sodium and sugar that they can do without.

This is my invariable advice to people: Learn how to cook – try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun! School nutrition professionals have a very important – and very tough – job. They have to meet the new federal standards on minimal budgets (often about $1.00 per lunch for food). They have to satisfy the taste buds of a generation that has grown up on fast food, chicken fingers and pizza. They have to serve hundreds (or even thousands) of students in crowded cafeterias quickly and efficiently. They face criticism from all sides – everyone from principals and parents to TV chefs and teachers thinks they know more about school meals that people who actually prepare and serve them.

And yet, like these smiling professionals at an August 16th back-to-school training in Provo, Utah, they are eager to learn new skills and proud to serve children the safest, most nutritious, best tasting meals possible. They may be a tiny bit fearful about the increased scrutiny that the new lunch guidelines will bring, but I can guarantee you that they know how to have fun! I believe that Julia Child would indeed be proud of these professionals who are “Moving in the Future” and ready to help a generation become fit, healthy, and ready to succeed!