Washougal, WA — If asked the question ‘what’s cooking’ at Washougal schools, the answer may surprise you. Washougal School District (WSD) is implementing a new approach for school meal service, with restaurant style, scratch-made, healthy, and nutritious food available for students and employees.
“At the end of the day it is really about the desire to provide our students with high quality, delicious, homemade meals,” said Mary Templeton, WSD Superintendent. “This program builds on our efforts to achieve our mission to know, nurture and challenge all students to rise. It is important for our students to know they are loved and cared for and we know food nourishes the body, the mind and the spirit.”
The work toward this change began in early 2020 with Templeton along with WSD Business Manager Kris Grindy and Career and Technical Education Director Margaret Rice researching schools across the country who were moving in a similar direction.
Grindy and Rice met with a local chef to start a needs analysis and survey of school kitchens.
“The main goal was to create a transition plan based on his findings and help us work through this complex transition, which included hiring an Executive Chef Supervisor to lead our own Culinary Staff,” explained Rice.
At the end of July, the district hired Chef Chris Youngren to lead the new Culinary Services team. Youngren has worked in the culinary business for more than 20 years. Her career started in restaurants, but she has worked extensively in schools, most recently for the Stevenson-Carson School District.
“Our goal is to transition our former Nutrition Service program into a Culinary Service Program that prepares meals with love and care for our students from scratch; meals we would be proud to serve our own families at home,” said Rice. “By doing this we will continue to work toward building a more inclusive culture/community, one where people sit down and eat together, share stories, and laugh while filling their stomachs.”
Even without students in classrooms, Culinary Services is already working with fresh produce and scratch cooking to provide meals for the district children, which are free through December. This program, funded by the Federal Government, is available at no cost to any child 18 or under. The District will return to charging students for reduced and full-price meals starting in January, unless the federal program is extended.
In the past, the food program meals were created with previously frozen foods. Now the ingredient quality is better, and all the meals are fresh. “This means we are starting with high quality ingredients,” explained Chef Youngren. “For example, we might purchase a ham and slice the meat for our deli sandwiches ourselves ensuring a higher quality product than what we might get if we purchased deli meats already sliced. Everything is being cooked in our central kitchen at Gause Elementary and then cooled immediately and prepared for distribution.”
Adjustments were made to the take-out model of delivery so families can easily reheat the meals to eat right away or freeze it to be eaten later. Meals include reheat instructions and are packaged in containers that can be used for reheating. Take-out bags include handles, which makes it easier for students and their families to carry several meals at once.
Washougal families who have not yet completed a Free and Reduced-Price Meal application form for the 2020-21 school year are encouraged to do so. This application needs to be resubmitted each school year.
“In addition, there may be families in our community who have never thought to apply, but who may qualify if their circumstances have changed due to the COVID crisis,” said Grindy. “Families are asked to apply before October 15, but can still apply any time during the year, especially if the family experiences a change in situation that may qualify them later.” To apply or reapply, even for those currently receiving meals, go to http://www.washougal.k12.wa.us/food-services/. The Washougal School District is an equal opportunity provider.
And while students have not yet returned, WSD employees working in buildings or offices are getting the opportunity to order and buy these meals too.
“Staff are invited to pre-order and purchase meals that will be available each day in all buildings at lunch time (11am-1pm),” explained Rice. “If they work in a District building other than a school, they come by the closest school to pick up their meals.” Staff meals are charged at the adult price, and the additional participation provides additional revenue that the culinary program will use to continue future innovations and investments.
Feedback from customers has been positive, with comments about how fresh and tasty the meals are. “We are also getting good suggestions to improve the service,” said Chef Youngren. “For instance, we have been asked to include more condiments and plastic silverware. We had in our minds that meals would be eaten at home and those items would not be necessary, but for instance, we are now serving staff in our buildings and they need those things. We are taking this time to listen and adjust to be ready when we are all back together again in the schools.”
According to Rice, a key to success will be providing an excellent product at an excellent value.
“We want our food quality to match up with other restaurants, to be just as good but not as expensive,” she said.
A regular priced lunch at Washougal High School is $3.40 and adult meal cost is only $4.50.
“Once our students return to school, they will be greeted with the smell of delicious food cooking,” said Templeton. “Meals will be a higher quality and more restaurant style food.”
Menu items will include items such as teriyaki rice bowls, bento hummus boxes, pulled pork sliders with coleslaw, Taco Tuesday, and even chicken and waffles. You only need to step into the school kitchen to experience the welcoming smell of fresh pizza coming out of the ovens to understand the difference.
Another change students will see is the Culinary Services staff wearing chef coats as they prepare and serve meals. “We are professionals and we want staff to look like the professional team they are,” said Chef Youngren. “These folks work hard and deserve respect for making these meals with love and care. Our staff is extremely excited to be a part of this new Culinary Services model. They are looking forward to the direction it is going and proud to be a part of it. Everyone is excited, onboard, and willing to do whatever is needed to make sure we can meet our goals of this program.”
“It is exciting,” said Glenda Huddleston, Culinary Services Server 1. “It just feels better to actually be cooking and serving fresh food. And it tastes good!” Staff involvement includes the use of their recipes. Culinary Services Server 2, Linda Manire’s fresh pineapple salsa and pico de gallo recipes were used for a recent Taco Tuesday meal.
Rice, as WSD CTE Director, is playing a large part in the development of the new meal service program. “My role is to see the bigger picture as well as watch the fine details,” she explained. “I’m helping guide the program in the direction we want it to be in the future.” Long-term, WSD would like to build in the opportunities for WHS culinary students to learn and grow their skills working with Culinary Services staff in partnership with their teacher, Chef Brenda Hitchins. Eventually they would like to leverage partnerships to develop and establish a registered Youth Apprenticeship Program.
“We hope our students will enjoy the food more and that less students feel they need to bring lunches to school,” Rice said. “As a parent, I remember the added stress of trying to get a healthy, yet delicious meal together every day for my child and we would like parents to know that we have their backs. We want the food they eat here to be some of the best meals they had all day. We’re creating a food experience, one where folks look forward to what is on the menu for the next day and they are talking about it.”
“The highest compliment will be when students are posting photos of their school lunch on social media to tell others how yummy is,” Rice added.