Usually, buying school lunch on a regular basis seems something akin to a form of slow-moving assisted suicide for teachers. Only in dire straits would I resort to the combination of tater tots and Taco Bell-branded burritos that were available under the heat lamps.
But all that has changed in Port Townsend schools. This February, in what felt like an overnight makeover, everything was suddenly different about our school lunch program.
Students’ trays started showing up to lunch-time meetings piled high with kale chips, couscous salads, and sandwiches on local, organic bread.
Lunches started to look like this:
For the record (from top left), that’s fish tacos made with fresh fish delivered from our city docks by Key City Fish Company, a vegetable bake, shepherd’s pie with kale salad, followed by mac & cheese with lentil salad.
Then came pizza day with fresh sauce and cheese donated by our local Mt. Townsend Creamery:
And just like that, this year in Port Townsend schools has become the year of the school lunch.
Crazy things started to happen. Our English teacher who teaches Fast Food Nation to sophomores every year and eats what can only be described as a radically healthy diet bought a school lunch for the first time in 20 years. Then he bought another. And another.
I was walking through the middle school commons with a group of community members who knew nothing about the changes in school lunch when they started exclaiming to each other, “That’s the best smelling school lunch ever!”
How did it happen? Of course this type of fundamental change required significant community, administrative, and kitchen staff support and coordination.
We were lucky to start off with a community that had already been supportive: an active Farm to School group, an elementary school garden, and a middle-school orchard of fruit trees donated and planted by a local gleaners group to grow healthy snacks for our students.
We also had a superintendent and wellness committee committed to the change. “We just can’t keep feeding our kids the same processed food and sugar,” Dr. David Engle said. “We want to see a transition from a feeding program to a meals program.”
This winter, he helped bring in Hope Borsato, a local chef and caterer with a background in large-scale food services and local organic cooking to help advise on the change.
All this sounds great… and expensive, but according to Engle and Borsato, costs have been roughly the same.
Borsato explained that they’d made several fundamental changes to lunch delivery to increase efficiency and offset the cost of higher-quality, hand-made cooking.
Historically, our district had created three separate menus for our elementary, middle and high schools. Now we all eat the same thing on a given day, freeing up kitchen staff to cook rather than prep three different types of reheated meals.
Instead of serving large pieces of low-quality meat, we switched to small amounts of high-quality meat in meals supplemented with protein from lots of bean and lentil salads.
The district has been creative about procuring affordable, high-quality ingredients locally. We’ve worked with the Port Townsend Food Co-op to purchase organic carrots at wholesale prices.
We replaced industrial bread with local, organic bread from Pane D’Amore bakery by taking their end of the day loaves for a dollar a piece. The next day we get a sandwich bar with bread like this:
The community has also played a huge role. Local chefs volunteered their time to work with our kitchen staff and help plan meals during the transition. A community member came forward with a thousand dollar donation to support the purchase of the small-scale cooking hardware our food services staff needed to start making meals from scratch. Our local award-winning cheese makers Mt. Townsend Creamery have donated 30 pounds of cheese each month.
Looking forward, the district is working with Jefferson Healthcare, our local hospital, on pre-orders of fresh fruits and vegetables from area farmers–a sort of CSA for schools. This will help us source more local, and often organic, food for school lunches while supporting our area farmers as well. Students for Sustainability, a high school club, is working with the district to lead implementation of reusable plates and silverware this spring.
For the past month, all these changes in school food have been the lunchtime conversation for teachers and students alike. These conversations around food have blossomed into larger connections between our lunches, our curriculum, and our community.
Here’s what an integrated approach to food and education can look like:
At our elementary school, students learned about planting potatoes from Farmer Zach from our local Dharma Ridge Farm. That day for lunch across the district, we had a baked potato bar featuring organic potatoes from the same farmer’s fields. Later at the high school, local professor Wes Cecil and chef Arran Stark co-led an interactive lecture for our students on the history of the potato and its importance to the world.
Those are the kinds of interdisciplinary, real-world connections educational theorists dream about. In Port Townsend, they’ve become our students’ reality.
It’s easy to get bogged down in all the things that aren’t working well in public schools. Change like this gives you hope for what public schools can do and be. It feels authentic and it feels real. And it reminds you that given the right community and school support it can happen quickly.
Perhaps most hopefully of all, Port Townsend did it on our own. In a small, rural district with an almost 50 percent free- and reduced lunch rate, we didn’t wait for the State of Washington to fund it. We didn’t wait for a Department of Education mandate. The community, schools and food services staff saw what was right and made it real. It was hard work and often a struggle for those tasked with implementing the change, but the results have been nothing short of revolutionary.
(Photo credits: Benjamin Dow, Tom Gambill, and Jan Boutilier.)
Ed. note: My claim to fame is that I got to co-teach American Studies with Benjamin Dow in the last century. Since then, Mr. Dow has taught English and social studies in China, Ghana, and Port Townsend, Washington, where he currently teaches Contemporary World Problems. He is published in Teaching Tolerance and recites an annual poemfor graduating seniors.