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Making school meals delicious; two eastern Washington districts start from scratch

Colville School District Nutrition Services Director Cassandra Hayes has prioritized cooking from scratch and using locally-produced ingredients.
Courtesy of Cassandra Hayes
Colville School District Nutrition Services Director Cassandra Hayes has prioritized cooking from scratch and using locally-produced ingredients.

School breakfasts and lunches don’t have the best reputation.

There are several reasons for that: School cooks’ lack of imagination and staffing shortages. Not enough money to buy good ingredients. Government-imposed limits on salt, sugar and calories – limits that may be tightened soon by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Those factors put crimps on even the most creative chefs.

“With our regulations and our laws that we have through the USDA in our national school lunch program, we have very limited options,” said L.J. Klinkenberg, the director of nutrition services and executive chef for the Cheney School District.

And yet, for many students, school meals are the most reliable — and available — of their day. In many districts, all children, regardless of their families’ financial status, are now eligible for free meals.

Doug Nadvornick/Spokane Public Radio

“If I can’t get a child to trust that the food we’re serving is flavorful and pretty enough for them to eat, that’s a problem,” Klinkenberg said.

School meals must appeal to young palates, said Cassandra Hayes, the nutrition services director for the Colville School District. If students don’t like the food served to them, they dump it rather than eat it.

“What I want to bring to students is a decrease in heat-and-serve package meals and bring them more nutritious food,” she said.

Hayes has done just that, bringing more scratch-made cooking and local ingredients to Colville.

“Our beef stroganoff, they’re actually making the sauce for the beef stroganoff,” she said. “We get our beef raw from a local farm and so they have to actually cook that beef. It’s not coming pre-cooked like it used to. Our beef, you can put a whole bunch on a sheet pan, throw it in the oven and just cook it up and season it and then you can put taco seasoning on it and you can have it for your taco salads, your soft tacos, taco soup. There’s lot of ways to train our staff on how you can limit the workload.”

Limiting the workload is important for a small staff, Hayes said. They find other ways to serve fresh food without having to make it all themselves.

“We serve over 800 kids in a day and so, rather than having my staff, ‘Hey, you’re going to make 800 rolls today,’ we decide ‘Let’s purchase some fresh rolls.’ The Bread Box in Chewelah, which is about 30 minutes from us, we go there and we pick up our fresh bread every week. So the bread that’s served for the week is made over the weekend and I pick it up, or one of my staff picks it up, on Monday and we bring it out. We distribute it to the schools and it’s used fresh throughout that week,” she said.

That’s a big change.

“We were buying it from our distributor. They’d bring it in. It would be frozen. I’m not sure when it was made. We just want more fresh ingredients,” Hayes said.

Klinkenberg has also brought a scratch-made mandate to Cheney. Like Hayes, he has found that his desire to make good food is sometimes limited by his resources.

“I’m going to make a tomato bisque and it’s like, ‘OK, do I have a tilt skillet or steam jacket kettle big enough? No. Do I have the oven space? OK, maybe. Do I have enough hands to do this? OK, I’m going to go with Campbell’s soup,’” he said.

There are times when he has to compromise. But Klinkenberg says he’s still able to make things students like, while improving the nutritional content.

“Our biggest hit, which is our least healthiest item, of course, is chicken and waffles. It is a whole muscle, whole grain chicken strip. It’s a nice product. And then we do a whole grain, lower sugar, low sodium waffle that looks like a funnel cake, which everybody says, ‘That’s dessert!’” he said.

Indeed, chicken and waffles is a decadent lunch, if you consider the federal nutritional limits imposed. Fortunately for school districts, there’s some flexibility in the rules, allowing Klinkenberg to serve a salad or other low calorie meal later in the week to balance things out “so I can offset those nutritions and make sure that I’m getting that value that’s above and beyond,” he said.

Better nutrition brings better academics

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new child nutrition standards are expected to be released this spring. A draft version came out last year.

“We’re not exactly sure what the final rule is going to look like, but I think we can guess that there’s going to be an added sugars limit and there’s going to be some updates to the sodium reduction requirements and those things are both really important for children’s health,” said Meghan Maroney, the campaign manager for child nutrition programs for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

She says school nutrition has largely improved since the last time the standards were updated 12 years ago.

“Schools were working on making the changes. Companies were reformulating their products. There was a ton of work happening,” Maroney said. “Then with the Trump administration, when they came into office, the USDA rolled back some of the nutrition standards.”

She said her organization sued the administration in 2019; the next year, a Maryland court ruled in its favor. But that was April 2020, a month into the Covid pandemic. It has taken four years to revise the standards. Now, she said, President Biden’s USDA is going back to the spirit of the rules adopted in 2012.

“We know that healthy school meals are associated with better educational outcomes, better attention in the classroom and participation rates. When all kids have access to school meals, the benefits are enormous,” Maroney said.

Other people benefit too

School nutrition managers buy food from a variety of places, including large corporations that adjust their products to the federal standards. With the upcoming changes, those businesses will have to adapt. Klinkenberg says that means products they can buy now may not be available for several months. That’s one reason why he looks to local sources to fill some of his needs. Klinkenberg says he often sits down with farmers to learn about what they’re offering.

“He’ll say, ‘This is what I’m growing. What are your thoughts about what you want to do?’ I’m like, ‘This year I want to get more Roma tomatoes. We can turn them into diced tomatoes and freeze them,’ and in January, we can serve a tomato soup that is fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes that I couldn’t afford to buy elsewhere,” he said.

Hayes says she also meets regularly with local food producers. She says farmers and ranchers seek her out because the district has become a reliable buyer. She called the outreach “amazing.”

“At times it’s more expensive to buy locally, but at the same time, the students like the food more, so we have more kids coming in eating, which gives us a higher reimbursement [from the state],” so it pays off, Hayes said. She says her department is on target to make its budget for the year.

Klinkenberg says there’s one other benefit to making more food from scratch: he’s able to attract more chefs and people with food service backgrounds to come and work for him.

“We get people coming from industry that have gone out there and done the 14-16-hour, six-day-a-week jobs and they want to come in and get good benefits and have family time,” he said. He says the pay isn’t as high as restaurant work, but veteran people choose the tradeoffs of normal, predictable hours and more paid time off.

A student view of school meals

Michael McCauley is eager to see how the new school nutrition guidelines will trickle down to his school cafeteria. McCauley is a sophomore at Central Valley High School. He thinks school meals are often bland and sometimes inedible for people who have special dietary needs.

“People who have celiac [disease] can’t eat gluten. They can’t eat a lot of the school meals. And I realized that school meals, in my view, are pretty inadequate,” he said.

McCauley and two of his peers co-wrote a column about the current state of school lunches that was published last year in the Seattle Times.

He agreed with Meghan Maroney that the nutritional quality of school meals has slowly improved, but he said there’s still room for improvement. For example, the breakfast options at CV usually include smoothies and parfaits — too much sugar, he believes — or bread, which isn’t good for people with celiac symptoms.

His other complaint is about portion sizes.

“For example, for lunch at Central Valley High School we have a couple of different options. We have a slice of pizza and some fries, seven or eight fries and one slice of pizza, or we have a small burger, usually a patty with a bun and sometimes you get to put lettuce on it. Then there’s a daily meal that switches out almost always with some sort of grain in it or some sort of thing people with celiac can’t eat. And then there’s a fourth option which is usually a salad,” he said.

For the record, McCauley said he doesn’t have celiac, but knows several people who do. He said they sometimes talk about their frustrations with school meals. He believes a lot of students leave lunch hungry and he believes that has an effect on academic performance.

Cassandra Hayes and L.J. Klinkenberg said they are sympathetic to McCauley’s concerns.

“What a great question and I’m glad there’s a student talking about this,” Klinkenberg said. “When I was playing sports in high school, also working a job, three ounces of chicken at noon was not going to take me until 6 o’clock at night. It’s not going to happen.”

He said students in his district qualify for one free entrée – but not two, which is a hindrance for students who can’t afford to buy a second helping.

“Hence the reason why we do all the fruits and vegetables you can eat because that was the only thing we could do in order to compensate,” Klinkenberg said. “But how many bananas can you eat?”

Hayes said Colville also tries to steer hungry students to the salad bar until they’re full. She says students seem to appreciate the effort to make their meals tastier.

“Our students want from-scratch food and so having the kids coming up and telling us how much they love the food just gives a positive impact on all the staff and they’re enjoying it,” Hayes said.

Klinkenberg says he occasionally uses students as focus groups whenever he’s developing new recipes.

“Cooking for kids is humbling because they have no filter. They don’t care how many letters behind your name you have. They don’t care who you’ve cooked for, what you’ve cooked, as long as what they’re eating is good,” he said.

Doug Nadvornick has spent most of his 30+-year radio career at Spokane Public Radio and filled a variety of positions. He is currently the program director and news director. Through the years, he has also been the local Morning Edition and All Things Considered host (not at the same time). He served as the Inland Northwest correspondent for the Northwest News Network, based in Coeur d’Alene. He created the original program grid for KSFC. He has also served for several years as a board member for Public Media Journalists Association. During his years away from SPR, he worked at The Pacific Northwest Inlander, Washington State University in Spokane and KXLY Radio.