Story by Julie Buckles
My good friend Gina Kirsten bought me a surprisingly, shockingly mmmmm lunch this week: chicken salad with feta and pesto with a hint of mint on a ciabatta bun, pesto pasta on the side and a salad bar where I grabbed a few fresh carrots. The price: $3.50.
Gina works at the Washburn High School. She had been telling me about the delicious lunches for over a month. I didn't believe her, holding tight to childhood memories of watery tomato soup, tepid tuna casserole and mottled Salisbury steak “” and so I deflected her invitations.
Because of the farm-to-school program at Washburn, I had always felt confident that lunch must be at least okay. After watching Jamie's Food Revolution I was worried. I have a daughter at Washburn Elementary and since Jamie encourages Americans to visit their local school cafeteria and eat lunch, I thought my time had come.
I started Friday by having breakfast at Washburn Elementary School with my six-year-old daughter Caroline and her friend Ki-Lin. Neither of them routinely eats breakfast at school but fate had brought us together for an enjoyable meal of low-fat yogurt, granola, strawberries and peanut butter, banana and jelly on English muffins “” and juice, milk and cheese sticks, if we desired.
I caught up with head cook Patty Holman after Friday's lunch rush to ask her what goes on in kitchen at Washburn High School, where she and her staff prepare breakfast and lunch for the district. Sitting in her crowded office in the back of the kitchen, she tells me how she has quietly been leading her own un-televised revolution for more than five years.
She uses whole foods “” meaning real food “” cuts, chops, dices and slices it and turns it into a meal. This doesn't seem so revolutionary except for what happens in most lunchroom kitchens “” largely because of government regulations and encouragement”” is not cooking.
It's called “traying patties,” laying highly processed food onto trays and pushing the trays into a warming oven. Seven years ago, Holman worked for a short time at the Washburn Elementary School, overseeing the salad bar and says she nearly lost it when she saw grilled cheese sandwiches come prepackaged in plastic “” to be heated in the plastic wrap.
She complained. Instead of being fired, a few months later she was hired to run the kitchen. And so with a fresh staff that was willing and able to cook, this veteran of food service and a mom of four boys, began changing how lunch was made.
“Any lunchroom kitchen could be doing this” she says.
She makes everything from frying raw bacon and crumbling them into bits to making her own taco seasoning to peeling and slicing real ginger for the Asian noodle bar. “We call this catering for kids,” she laughs.
She uses vegetables “” cucumbers, carrots, squash, tomatoes, basil, and potatoes “” from the garden at the school. And under Wisconsin regulations, she can take excess food from gardeners in the fall “” and purchase produce from local farmers.
What's even more surprising is that she won over the kids. When she took over the kitchen, the high count for lunch was 60. Two months later, there were lines “” 80, 90, 100, 120 students. Kids were sitting in the halls, there weren't enough trays or forks to feed them all.
And so, the high school moved to a staggered lunch with two lunch periods and students still rush to get in line for their lunch and some stay behind to help clean up.
How did she do it? She talked to them about the food. She gave them two options “” the second a little less familiar. When she made pumpkin soup, she stood handing out small cups and spoons and encouraged them to try. “It's all about moving kids past their fear of the new,” she says.
When seniors asked for something with sour kraut, she made Reuben sandwiches “” and everyone started talking. She's had less success with other items, she admits. Spaghetti squash comes to mind. But, because they grew it, “they tried it,” she says.
And the revolution spreads. A few years ago, she began bagging lunches for the some of the sporting teams. So, instead of eating at fast food restaurants on the way home, they enjoy a handmade ham or turkey sandwich, juice, fruit and chips “” all for $5.
What's encouraging is that Holman works within the system. “We all order from the same places it's just what we choose to order,” she says.
And because she's sadly unique, she often saves money because no other kitchens want whole foods. So, for example, when raw bulk beef recently came on sale, no one bid on it. She got two years worth “” about $5,000 worth “” for $173.
The same thing happened last year with dried cherries from Door County. She bought 40 cases at a discounted price, and still has them at the salad bar. “I don't know if people didn't know what to do with them or what,” she says of her big score.
Holman says she recently sat a conference where one cook lamented the fact that kids throw their food away. The speaker's response was: it doesn't matter. All that matters is that what you put on their trays, meets the standards – by these standards, French fries count as a vegetable.
Holman shakes her head. “These are our kids,” she says. “It matters.”
About the author: Julie Buckles is a writer living in northern Wisconsin. She can be reached at email@example.com.