WENATCHEE — Efforts to improve school lunches offered in the Wenatchee School District have gained statewide attention.
Best known is the district’s farm to school food program, which, in its third year, purchased about $70,000 worth of fresh fruits and vegetables from local farms this year.
Other changes were highlighted in a best practices manual put out in January by the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Those include cooking more food from scratch, changing recipes to include healthier ingredients, and sharing their knowledge with other districts.
Joan Qazi, a geography teacher at Wenatchee Valley College, was a volunteer for a local organization when she started pushing to get fresh farm fruits and vegetables served at local schools. Two years ago, she took a part-time position as fresh food in schools coordinator for the nonprofit Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network and now works on farm to school programs in five districts.
Flavored milk no longer served with lunch
Soda pop is not sold in vending machines at any elementary or middle schools
Food or beverages with minimal nutrition are prohibited during meals, and cannot be sold or served at school until 30 minutes after the last lunch period
Locally-grown fresh fruits and vegetables are purchased and used in school meals
At least one-half cup of fruits or vegetables are served with every hot lunch, with up to 10 varieties offered so students will eat them
Almost all breads, crusts and even cookies are made with whole grains
More hot lunch dishes are made from scratch
Short videos about the school lunches are posted regularly at https://www.facebook.com/WenatcheeSchoolDistrictFoodServices
What’s to come
Soda pop will be phased out at Wenatchee High and WestSide High schools
All breads and crusts will be made with whole grains
Candy will not be given to students as a classroom reward, and using any food as a reward is strongly discouraged
Schools will provide healthy party ideas to parents and teachers for classroom celebrations
Snacks served at school will be healthy
Schools will encourage fundraisers that promote physical activities, and those that involve food will meet outlined nutrition standards
Food sold in vending machines must meet specific caloric and sugar- or fat-content criteria
Clubs or tutoring sessions will not meet during lunch unless students are also allowed to eat
“Wenatchee is, in terms of central Washington, ahead of most other districts,” she said, adding, “There are some in western Washington that have gone farther, but I’m proud of Wenatchee. They have made it work.”
Qazi credits Kent Getzin, the district’s food service director, and the district’s kitchen managers — especially Wenatchee High School’s kitchen manager Jan Holmer — as instrumental in making the changes possible.
“Jan helped other kitchen managers see that it wasn’t too difficult. And now, she’s going to other districts, like Ephrata, and showing them it’s not too difficult,” she said.
Getzin, too, travels to other districts in the state to conduct healthy cooking classes. He’s now serving on a national committee to help develop farm to school programs across the country.
Despite more labor involved in dealing with fresh produce, cost has not been an issue in the changes he’s made. He said buying directly from farms eliminates the middle man.
The biggest barrier is that fresh food doesn’t come with a label showing what the government needs to know about its nutritional value, he said. “It’s really easy to prove to the feds when you just open a box that is labeled and identified,” Getzin said. “But when you’re making it from scratch, there’s a lot more effort.”
Qazi said to make the program work, the district also needs willing farmers. “For the farmers, it’s not a lucrative market,” she said. “Most of them are philosophically committed to kids.”
Some farmers are more than happy to sell to the district.
Sue Gasbar, a Cashmere gardener who usually sells her fresh vegetables at the farmers market, said selling to the Wenatchee School District is a secure market, “I can give them a little better deal because I’m not spending hours at the market,” she said. The district sends her an order, and she picks on Sunday, and delivers on Monday.
But also, she said, “I believe in the program,” Gasbar said. “I really think kids form their eating habits early. And if they have that opportunity to eat fresh, healthy food, it’s so much easier than trying to do it as an adult.”
Scott McManus, who grows mostly pears at his orchard in Cashmere, said the easiest way to sell his fruit is to send it to a packing house and let them do all the work.
But in addition to pears, he grows some unusual varieties of apples, including some that are tart that the students have gobbled up, and others that are small. “Size is everything when you market fruit. But the smaller sizes were actually more desirable at the school,” he said.
And while selling directly involves more work, it’s also more gratifying. “I have to say, the food service people are just great. They’re willing to do a little extra work, and they’re enthusiastic. And we think the students are eating more fruit,” he said.
Qazi said that, in itself, could be the key to success.
“For me, it’s all about making the kids want to do this themselves, and not feeling like there’s a parent or a teacher telling them what to do.”
K.C. Mehaffey: 997-2512