San Juan Island School District lunch program sparks food frenzy

The only thing institutional is the plate it
The only thing institutional is the plate it's served on. From left, Kelsie Carlton, Eddie Nash and Ryan Aylward load up on soft tacos last week.
— image credit: James Krall

The new school lunch pilot program impresses students, parents, just about everyone.

Roast chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy – real mashed potatoes, on the first day of school. Build-'em-yourself soft tacos was on the lunch menu the second day. Pizza – that true test of any school lunch program – was on plates Thursday.

The verdict?

"Awesome," said one high school boy, his plate piled high with fresh salad and fruits and veggies – an athlete in a hurry to sit down with his crew.

"It's like you're eating at your own house," Nana Eisenhauer said.

"It is, except my mom can't cook that well." said Chelan Taylor. Her comment that was met with peals of laughter. "My mom would be horrified ..."

No mistake here. Chef Tom French's pilot program, "The Experience Food Project" is off to a rip-roaring start.

French's program is unique: it combines federal USDA school lunch money with private and public grants to completely overhaul the way school as an institution deals with feeding students. Instead of previously apportioned institutional foodstuffs – familiar to those in institutional kitchens everywhere, items bearing the USDA label on the can – French's program does everything it can to obtain food items locally. The more local, the better.

On Tuesday, the school system went through 900 pieces of chicken. Real chicken, like you'd buy in the meat section, not chicken pieces that have been processed. It was brushed lightly with oil, sprinkled with spices and roasted. Easy stuff. And good. And bought locally, French said.

"We want to use Draper Valley, out of Skagit Valley, almost exclusively. Because they're really the only high-volume poultry producer that can do something at this scale that's approved."

French is upsetting the apple cart in a big way, introducing a degree of excellence and cost uncertainty into a system built on predictability, standardization and, if you take the student's word for it, mediocrity.

"Like last year, it was like, 'What am I eating?'" student Jordyn Taylor said. "This year it looks good and appetizing. There's like, fresh radishes." Jordyn sat with a bunch of his friends, all eating school lunch with gusto, and talking as they ate.

"A lot better-quality food." Connor Johns said.

"If my mom cooked, I'd want it to taste like this," Isaac Taylor added.

Two seats away, Parker Lawson, who, at 6 foot 3 and 245 pounds anchors the football team's offensive and defensive lines, was strangely quiet. Working his way through a soft taco and a big plate of fresh fruit and salad, his mouth was full, and he was clearly intent on keeping it that way.

Keeping Parker fed is not just a challenge for his family. Keeping him fed with locally procured foods is where the cost uncertainty comes in, and French is well aware of that.

"The local farmers that we're working with on the island, they're just not geared up for this level of production," French said. "We did get green beans from Waldron. We got some cucumbers from Lacrover Farms. The potatoes came out of Skagit yesterday. So it's going to be that tricky balance. The more we can go producer direct – remember, we're building a metric here that's scalable to any other school district."

For French and his newly hired executive chef, Andy Radzialowski, the day begins early. Radzialowski arrives each day at 5 a.m. and his two helpers roll in around 7 a.m. French lives on Whidbey Island and spends Sunday through Thursday nights here for the school year, working with Radzialowski on menus, overseeing costs, and finding the best quality and most local foods he can find.

"Once we get everything fine tuned, it's an open ticket," Radzialowski said. "We can do a lot of exciting stuff."

High school teacher Jim McNairy walked by with plate of food stacked high and a Cheshire cat grin on his face. "My second time in 16 years eating here," he said.

For Pizza Day, the numbers were off the chart, as the school served up 445 meals. That's almost double the daily average from a year ago. And students are beginning to bug their parents to eat hot lunch with their friends.

"Both my kids haven't bought lunch – hardly ever," Gordy Waite said. "And they both put 10 lunches on their lunch cards. They've both asked me to put more money on them."

"There's no question, it's great food," middle school Principal Ann Spratt said.

The beat goes on behind the kitchen door and the work never ends for Radzialowski."We have tomorrow in the works. You're always thinking about tomorrow."

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