School lunch has never looked so good

The buy-local movement that helped spur the growth of farmers markets in Snohomish County and across the state has now reached what might be its culinary final frontier — the school lunch plate.

Students in the Arlington and Snohomish school districts can eat apples recently plucked from the branches of Marshland Orchards in Maltby.

The salad bar in the Lake Stevens School District can include offerings of celery sticks from Fife, sweet red peppers from Wapato and cucumbers harvested from the fields of nearby Carleton Farm.

Of the 10 school districts in Western Washington that have formally joined the Fresh Food in Schools Project, a statewide effort to get Washington-grown produce in schools, four are in Snohomish or Island counties: Arlington, Lake Stevens, South Whidbey and Northshore.

The Stillaguamish Tribe recently announced a $100,000 grant to the Arlington School District to help its program continue and grow.

Lunch menus in school districts throughout the county are being transformed. Pizzas are made from homemade whole-wheat crusts. Offerings include build-your-own subs, teriyaki beef over brown rice and meatless entrees.

“I compare it to what I had as a kid,” said Kristen Curtis of Snohomish, whose daughter attends Little Cedars Elementary School. “It’s unbelievable the difference health-wise.”

Part of the push for healthier food is coming from the federal government, which provides about half of the funding for school lunch programs. New nutrition guidelines, spelled out in a 280-page document to be phased in over 10 years, were announced last month.

Starting this fall, students no longer will be able to wave off offerings of fruits and vegetables with a simple “no thanks.” Students will be encouraged to have servings of fruits or vegetables each day.

School districts, knowing that the new requirements were in the works, have been working hard even before they went into effect to make the offerings appealing.

Carrot sticks and grapes always have been popular, but students are now seeing snap peas, broccoli, mandarin oranges, jicama sticks, pluots and even roasted Brussels sprouts in lunch lines — often introduced with “try me” samples.

In Everett, dietitians tinkered with the determination of lab-jacketed scientists to reduce the fat in the macaroni and cheese recipe. For about a year, they tested — then abandoned — using squash and pumpkin puree before finally settling on the winning combination: carrot puree camouflaged in the cheese sauce. The fat in each serving was trimmed to 14.8 grams from 16.4 grams.

In a blind taste test, students said it was tastier and creamier, preferring it to its higher-fat predecessor, said Debbie Webber, who manages the district’s school meal programs.

Lunch programs have an economic incentive for finding tasty offerings.

Next school year, if a student qualifies for a free lunch and can’t be persuaded to include a half cup of fruit of vegetables in the meal, “I won’t get any money from the federal government for that meal,” said Barbara Lloyd, food service director in the Edmonds School District. “Costs may go up and revenue may go down if I can’t convince students to take fruit and vegetables.”

Yet all the guidelines in the world won’t improve student nutrition if kids don’t actually eat the fruit and vegetables on their plate and the food ends up being thrown away.

“I don’t want healthy garbage cans,” Lloyd said. “I want healthy kids.”

Parents and farms on board

It was a 2006 outbreak of foodborne illness that got Webber thinking. Spinach, a plant with a Popeye-associated reputation for being healthy, had been contaminated by E. coli 0157:H7. The bacteria-contaminated spinach had been shipped across the country before the problem was discovered, causing 205 people to become ill and killing three.

“That’s when it hit me in the face: We better start seeing where it came from,” Webber said of the produce used in Everett schools. “We wrote our bids to buy local whenever possible.”

School districts such as Lake Stevens and Snohomish recently asked parents for suggestions on school lunches. Improving nutrition and buying local were high on the list.

Getting produce from Washington farms to local schools is not as simple as it might seem. Processors and distributors have to be found, Washington-grown crops need to be identified, and the produce needs to be cleaned, packaged, and delivered to area schools.

“They can’t have 17 farmers showing up with wheelbarrows and tractors,” said Mike Bennett, who owns Hendrickson Farms in Marysville, a food processor and distributor. “We’ve tried for years to put together and help support local food programs.”

While school districts such as Everett, Lakewood and Bellingham frequently buy Washington produce, others still buy from out-of-state companies if they can get the food at a lower price, he said.

Liesa Postema, produce manager for Marshland Orchards, said that 22 varieties of apples are grown on their 60-acre farm in the Snohomish Valley. While in season, some of those apples are delivered to the Snohomish and Arlington school districts “fresh from the tree,” she said.

Getting the first sales at local schools wasn’t easy. “It took us probably two years to even get our foot in the door,” she said. “There’s so many hoops to jump through due to the billing system.”

First, Snohomish signed on, then Arlington, and, most recently, the Kent School District has said it is interested.

“They want to do it, but there’s a disconnect between wanting to do it and working with farmers,” Postema said. “It’s a different way of thinking of how the schools have to order. It’s not going to be hundreds of pounds of this or that. They have to plan the menus differently.”

Yet when the apples are delivered to local schools, students notice a difference, Postema said. “Kids are starting to ask for the apples by name … Fujis, honeycrisp, things other than the typical red school apple.”

Going local isn’t easy

Nicole Morin of Lake Stevens said she was thrilled when another PTA mom asked if she was interested in working to rally parents behind having the school district join the state’s Fresh Food in Schools project.

“I had 15 to 20 emails or phone calls from parents in Lake Stevens,” said Rita Ordonez, who coordinates the 10 fresh food projects in Western Washington schools.

Getting approval for Lake Stevens to join the program was the first step. Parents soon found out that getting fresher produce and healthier food options was far more complicated than they thought.

“As a parent, we can say we want to change this,” Morin said. “There’s a lot of red tape.”

School districts are bound by tight budgets, federal regulations on nutrition levels such as calories, fat and sodium in each meal. There are regulations that spell out the bidding rules for buying enough food to serve thousands of meals each day.

The state is working with school districts to develop guidelines so the districts can write purchasing contracts with a preference for food produced closer to their communities, Ordonez said.

School districts deal in quantities hard for consumers to fathom. In a typical month, Edmonds, the county’s largest school district, buys 4,708 pounds of lettuce. It serves about 10,000 meals a day. Its annual food bill for the 2010-11 school year was $1.496 million.

“For the most part, the school districts are the largest restaurants in the area,” said Lloyd, with the Edmonds School District.

“There’s not one farm that can produce the amount we need when we need it.”

For all these reasons, school lunch serving lines were better known for quantity than quality.

Even Morin, who is volunteering to help improve the offerings in Lake Stevens, admitted that a year ago, her kids rarely bought hot meals at school. “When I looked at the lunch menu I saw, ‘Oh, a lot of prepackaged, processed foods in there.’

“I think parents have been wanting to make a change for a long time,” she said.

Kids take notice

In Lake Stevens, changes in meal planning began before students started classes in the fall, with cooking demonstrations and tours of farms in Snohomish County, said Mollie Langum, the district’s food and nutrition supervisor.

This school year, menus include gala apples from the Okanogan Valley, Asian salads with snap peas, bok choy and snow peas, and a variety of vegetables, often Washington-grown when in season, in the salad bar.

Nicole Morin’s son, 12-year-old Brooks Morin, a seventh-grader at Lake Stevens Middle School, is one of the students who is now buying some of those lunches. One of the things he likes most, he said, is that the food is a lot fresher.

“You can definitely tell,” he said. “Some of the school food that they make or get, definitely it tastes better than it did before.”

His sister, Samaya Morin, 8, a third-grader at Skyline Elementary School, said some work still needs to be done on the grilled cheese sandwich. “It’s packaged grill cheese,” she said. But she really likes the chili “with lots of vegetables in it.”

“Their food is tasting a lot better than a year ago because they’ve just changed a lot of the ingredients,” she said.

Comparisons of lunch buying patterns in the school district from September through January this school year versus last show a 3.5 percent increase in the number of meals served — about 120 more students a day, Langum said.

“For me, that’s huge,” she said. “If you have 120 more kids per day and 180 days in school year, that 21,600 meals a year.”

Nicole Morin said she hopes cooking demonstrations can be organized for the public on how to prepare fresh foods on a budget. She’s like to see a fresh food representative added to PTAs to maintain the momentum with school lunches.

Meanwhile, in Arlington, school officials are just starting to think about how the $100,000 grant from the Stillaguamish Tribe should be used.

“I want to honor the gift and really do something that we can continue even after the money is gone,” said Ed Aylesworth, food service director.

The push to get Washington-grown food in local schools was first presented at a meeting of the City Council and school district several years ago, said Bill Blake, longtime natural resources manager for the city of Arlington.

Farmers have to invest nine months ahead of time in buying seed and planting crops, he said. “They want to make sure they have a good sale at the end.

“We’ll try to figure those things out … What does it take for infrastructure? Can we figure out what equipment may help? What gives farmers the certainty they can sell their produce … slowly building the amount of food coming locally into the program.”

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or

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