After years of serving processed, reheated, pre-packaged lunches, some Western Washington schools are going back to good old-fashioned cooking from scratch.
Their goal is to serve meals prepared in an actual kitchen, with fresh ingredients for thousands of picky kids. That’s a tough assignment.
Bellingham Public Schools just made a curious hire. The district now has an executive chef, Patrick Durgan.
“We’ve got some BBQ chicken, baked beans, and there’s also a chicken gyro option,” Durgan said, as students lined up to fill their trays.
His job is to fix lunch, not just reheat something from a box.
“There’s high-sodium, high-sugar, high-fat content in a lot of those processed foods. There’s a lot of preservatives and things that we just don’t need in our food,” Durgan said.
This district is trying to provide more fresh food, prepared by its own cooks. It’s a years-long transition, but already there are some improvements. Now, alongside the frozen pizza, they’re providing a full salad bar, some of it harvested locally.
“I think it’s definitely improving, but there is some ways to go,” said 8th grader Linnea Barrett.
What they really need is a big central kitchen with the tools and space to cook for more than 10,000 hungry kids. They plan to open that facility in 2019.
“We will be reheating some things on-site, but we’ll be taking all that raw food and all those raw products and breaking them all down in our own kitchen, so we’ll be able to source local ingredients, local products,” Durgan said.
The Bethel School District in Spanaway is using its central kitchen to wash, chop, and prep whole ingredients for dishes like chicken pot pie, chipotle sloppy joes, and beef teriyaki.
In Monroe Public Schools, a typical lunch might include Asian wheat berry salad, bok choy with garlic-ginger drizzle, roast turkey and gravy, and vegetable soup, all made from scratch. They say they’ve even stopped using canned vegetables.
The South Whidbey School District, though, is transforming lunch and cultivating better eating habits in a way few other districts are. Kids are growing some of what they eat. On a recent day, the menu included lettuce, spinach, and kale harvested from the school yard. A few days earlier the lunch staff chopped up some bok choy the kids grew and made an easy stir-fry.
“Eating is an important part of our curriculum,” said Cary Peterson, who helped launch the School Farm Program in 2013.
“The long-term goal is that every meal has fresh vegetables from the garden and that we have scratch cooking,” she said.
They now have seven gardens, where students learn about agriculture, science, and nutrition, while munching on fistfuls of sorrel, an edible weed that’s kind of sour.
“It’s glorious, it’s delicious,” said one student.