Almost everyone can recall a school lunch memory, even if some of those memories might not be positive. However, the Bellingham School District has made substantial progress to change the stigma around school lunch with their Good Food Promise.
By making meals from scratch with more locally sourced products the district has been able to provide fresher and healthier options to students. They have also incorporated food education opportunities along the way.
The district’s new central kitchen, which went online early last year, helps expand the district’s mission of “real food, made with love.” The kitchen features top of the line equipment and operates to produce 4,500 lunches per day. The district also created a new menu over the summer.
“I have always been passionate about trying to find ways to help farmers, especially small farmers, scale up to institutional levels,” executive chef for the Bellingham School District, Patrick Durgan said. “When you think about schools and hospitals we are the true static opportunity for farmers and producers to get in and have a stable population to serve.”
Sourcing from local producers is a key component to the Good Food Promise. The district provides Washington raised pork from Claus Meats in Bellingham and Seahawks’ Dogs from Hempler’s Foods in Ferndale. They also provide sausage from Jack Mountain Meats and organic, free-range chicken from Sage & Sky Farm.
“It has been a really exciting process just watching the pride of our staff not only in the kitchen but across the district in regard to serving food that they can stand behind and be proud of,” Durgan said.
The district sources the bulk milk for its recipes from Edaleen Dairy and freshly baked bread at least once a week from Avenue Bread. They also source broth from Cauldron Broths in Bellingham and squash from Rabbit Field Farms in Mt Vernon.
“We wanted to make sure the relationships we started with local producers were sustainable on both sides,” Durgan said. “It’s one of those opportunities with local farmers that were looking to embrace.”
Depending on the day, middle and high school students might have the option of salmon cakes sourced locally from Lummi Island Wild with farro pilaf sourced from Bluebird Grain Farms or chickpea curry with organic coconut milk on brown rice.
What we did was to try and not shame any food items but introduce that simple value system of minimally processed, whole foods while limiting additives, preservatives and artificial food and colors, Durgan said.
Another key component integral to the Good Food Promise is to treat the cafeteria as an extension of the classroom, something the Bellingham School District has done in numerous ways.
“The dream is to build this system where we have kids who are eating in our schools, learn about cooking the menus and then grow up learning how to farm and garden and become part of our local food web,” director of wellness, Jessica Sankey said.
The district has partnered with Common Threads Farm to provide gardening and cooking lessons in 13 of 14 elementary schools and two middle schools. This year, for example, students are learning to cook the recipes for menu items such as the chickpea masala.
“I have a high level of confidence that our kids are getting really incredible quality food,” Sankey said.
A couple of years ago the district created the Garden to Cafeteria Toolkit. The toolkit allows students to run the exercise of selling a small amount of produce grown in the school garden in the cafeteria.
Currently in the works is a high school level career and technical education program centered around agriculture. The goal in the future is to provide paid summer internships for students so they can put their knowledge to work in the gardens and farms in town.
Tourism and food are a huge part of the culture and economy in Bellingham so we would be helping build the workers of tomorrow, Sankey said.
“We have done a lot of tremendous work and there are still opportunities to do so much more and continue our search for local partners,” Durgan said.