Buy-in picked up significantly in the Washougal School District in Washington when fresh foods started dominating the menu.
Since the 2020 school year, the menu has been about 85 percent freshly prepared, with a focus on restaurant-style menus. The approach demands more prep skills and more creativity, but the response has been dramatic: in September, the schools set a single-month record for meals served. Each month since the program rolled out has seen an increase in participation, both by students and school personnel.
While other school districts follow a heat-and-serve approach, Washougal’s culinary services staff converts basic ingredients into meals that appeal to students. “We do use our commodity dollars, mainly for a lot of the protein, but instead of focusing just on the commodity items we embrace them, then make them better,” says Johnattan Curiel, culinary services chef for the schools. “For example, if we get seasoned chicken strips, we might use them to make chicken pot pies, chicken tacos, that kind of thing. We’ll take canned tomatoes and make fresh tomato basil soup with grilled cheese.”
The biggest hit so far has been a Mexican with chicken. Other popular choices include pizza, chicken cheese toasties—upgraded, oven-baked grilled cheese—and meatloaf served with mashed potatoes, gravy and a vegetable. The pizza isn’t just any old frozen pie; it’s crafted from high-quality parbaked Italian dough. “We’re kind of playing with what we can get that provides nutritional value to students at a good price,” Curiel explains.
School cafeterias offer one choice for breakfast and one for lunch; the tentative plan is to start offering a second choice at the high school during the spring term. The high school is also switching to real plates and flatware in a bid to mimic a restaurant experience. “We’ve really been trying to mainstream and see what would work and what didn’t, which is why we focused on one item,” Curiel says.
To transition students away from the old standards and encourage them to eat outside their comfort zone, schools have been offering special treats, such as seasonal fruit crisps and special soups. Curiel says the district’s 3,000 students “were so used to eating corn dogs, chicken strips and pizza; now the culture is shifting a little.”
A guest server program—principals helped dish out meals one week in the fall—has been another tactic to spur interest in meals. The practice also created a social media buzz.
Breakfasts and lunches for the entire system are prepared centrally at an elementary school and delivered to the other four school sites a day or two before service. About 80 percent of the work is done in the central kitchen, and the staff at the five schools do the rest.
Training has been the key to producing a high-quality, consistent product, Curiel says. Moving a workforce accustomed to heat-and-serve toward fresh prep has also been a major challenge for Washougal.
A training program launched during the 2020-21 school year continued in the fall of 2021 during a week-long session. “We broke it down into sections: equipment, techniques; we went over everything we have that wasn’t being used to the fullest. Before we were mainly using ovens—now we have big mixers for making bread. We showed them how to use knives to break down meats, how to make cookies and so on,” Curiel notes.
The shift away from heat-and-serve has created additional challenges involving sourcing, challenges that have been compounded by supply-chain glitches. Curiel quickly discovered the importance of planning ahead. By November, he was working on menus for February through the end of the school year. That allows him to project what commodities will be available and give brokers and other suppliers ample time to locate products.
Washougal has been able to buy some local product through distributors, but Curiel has also been trying to establish ties with local farmers. He says the volume the schools need is often too much for a single small farm to fulfill. “On one day we might go through 325 pounds of carrots, and it’s hard for small local farmers to provide that,” he observes.
Regardless of whether ingredients are sourced locally or through distributors, Curiel says patience, flexibility and backup plans are a must when relying heavily on fresh.
“It is definitely worth the headaches you might have at first,” Curiel says. “We can see the change with students and even the staff members. Before, [staffers] didn’t really eat school lunches, but now we’re seeing higher participation.”