School Lunches That Rock

by Jen Matteis

Public school lunches may not be the epitome of health food, but they’re not the only show in town. Local private schools are setting an example by doing school lunches right, and savvy parents can always pack a cold lunch to avoid a sub-par menu.

Ashbrook Independent School

At the Ashbrook Independent School in Corvallis, Kitchen Manager Nikki Evans prepares a hot lunch five days a week with a full salad bar of freshly chopped fruits and vegetables. Evans is a fan of regional foods, and her lunches feature free-range, hormone-free beef.

“It’s healthier to not put chemicals and hormones into our bodies,” Evans commented. “Same with the fresh fruits and vegetables; they’re not being shipped in from Chile. I think the farthest we go is California.”

Along with your typical carrots and cucumbers, Evans throws in a few novelties such as beets, water chestnuts, or chickpeas.

“You’d be surprised how many kids pick up new foods,” she said.

Finally, she avoids that mainstay of the public school lunch: processed foods.

“I’m the one processing them,” she said. “It’s all made fresh and from scratch.”

Santiam Christian School

Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, a television show and movement to reform school food, has a keen supporter at Santiam Christian School in Adair Village. Kitchen Manager Carl Madison emulates the famous English chef in his effort to bring local, whole foods into his school cafeteria.

“I’m a huge advocate of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. I make everything from scratch; I buy hardly any preprocessed food,” said Madison. “The school here has a greenhouse, and I get my salad greens from them.”

Madison uses plenty of Oregon-based produce, along with Chelsea’s beef from Eugene that’s both grain- and grass-fed.

“The reason I use them is they don’t distribute any pink slime meat at all,” he noted, referring to the recently controversial beef trimmings. “I’ve been avoiding that for a long time. I try to not serve nuggets either; I hate those things.”

Carbohydrates–a mainstay of the Corvallis Public Schools–are not as prevalent in Madison’s cafeteria.

“I try to cut down the amount of carb intake and try to get the kids to eat more of the protein and vegetable end of it. If I do a stir-fry they’ll go through 20 pounds of vegetables,” he said. “The FDA will call it quality nutrition, but processed and frozen stuff is not as good as getting it fresh.”

Oliver’s Food Revolution also showed Madison that good food doesn’t have to cost more.

“They showed the public schools that if you make your own food, it’s actually profitable to do it from scratch as opposed to pre-made,” he said. “I think a lot of schools need to check that out.”

Cold Lunch on a Budget

If you think you can do better than your child’s school lunch program, then take the initiative and pack a decent cold lunch. According to Lisa Yagoda, the marketing assistant at First Alternative Natural Foods Co-op and mother of a child at Muddy Creek Charter School, it doesn’t have to be an expensive route. Yagoda generally aims for one healthy protein, one veggie, one fruit, and a “little something crunchy” in her kid’s meals.

“For the protein, sandwiches or wraps are economical and easy,” said Yagoda. “The old standby PB&J is more interesting with other nut butters and fruit spread, or even fresh fruit.”

Yagoda also suggested making your own hummus and seasoning it to your child’s preference for dips, wraps, or sandwiches, with a layer of lettuce to prevent the bread from going soggy. Other options include turkey or other sliced meat roll-ups, or dinner leftovers from the night before. For veggies, try sliced cucumbers, sugar snaps, or sweet peppers sliced thin like French fries, perhaps served with a dip. Include a serving of sliced apples, pears, oranges, or other fruits.

To save money, buy foods in larger quantities, such as a big tub of plain yogurt, then portion it into smaller containers with a spoonful of honey or fruit spread for flavor. Another cheap, but nutritious, option is apple sauce with cinnamon or chopped nuts. Silken tofu, milk alternatives, or fruit juice, frozen fruit, and nut butter make great puddings or smoothies, suggested Yagoda. Freeze them overnight and they’ll stay cold until lunchtime.

The Future for Corvallis Public Schools

According to Sara McCune, the Farm to School coordinator for the Corvallis School District, an effort is underway to bring more farm-fresh food into the public school cafeterias. The 2011/2012 school year started with hundreds of pounds of watermelons, cantaloupes, winter melons, and tomatoes from Red Hat Melons in Corvallis, and all of the district’s milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, and sour cream are purchased from local Lochmead dairies. Beans, apples, pears, mushrooms, and whole grain flour are also bought locally.

Still, it’s been a tough road through red tape.

“There are very real constraints that we must chip away at little by little,” McCune said. “The school lunch program is incredibly complex. Many people think that it is easy to incorporate more local produce into school lunches, but there are innumerable challenges that spring up along the way.”

In the future, McCune said the schools will offer “Local Lunches.” To show support, she suggests letting your children participate, and provide the district with positive feedback about its Farm to School efforts. For now, a program called the Tasting Table lets kids in Corvallis Public Schools sample fresh foods from local farms–and hopefully that will be a taste of things to come.

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