Feeding the Village
The Village School Kitchen’s Healthy Lunch Ladies serve up local, organic meals to Eugene students.
It’s really incredible to watch a second- or third-grader mix oil and vinegar for their salad.
STORY BY KATIE LEWIS CHAMBERLAIN
ILLUSTRATION BY SONYA MONTENEGRO
Toña Aguilar carefully places a thick slice of tamari-orange-glazed tofu atop a bed of brown rice, garnishing the dish with crinkly pieces of seaweed. She cheerfully hands the bright-blue bowl across the counter to a second-grader clutching a plastic tray, which is already brimming from a trip to the salad bar. Today, slices of avocado, garbanzo beans, roasted zucchini, and two clementines occupy the tray’s rectangular compartments.
After passing through the line, children cluster around a side table, chattering as they season their lunches with homemade hot sauce, citrus vinaigrette, and sliced green onions. They collect cloth napkins, silverware, and glasses of water or organic milk before filtering back to their classroom to eat together.
Behind the counter, Toña and Stacey Black, known affectionately as the Healthy Lunch Ladies, along with four parent volunteers, begin plating “sushi bowls” for the next class. This meal is a favorite of students at The Village School, a K-8 public charter school in Eugene, Oregon.
Since launching a scratch-based kitchen in 2011, the Healthy Lunch Ladies have attracted local and national attention by serving breakfast and lunch made with whole foods and primarily organic and local ingredients. The school’s award-winning program has become a model for other schools seeking to improve their food program within the context of the USDA National School Lunch Program (NSLP).
The Village School was founded in 2000 as one of Oregon’s first charter schools and now enrolls approximately 215 students. It’s a Title I school, meaning it has a higher than average population of low-income students. Between 51 and 57 percent of the school’s students qualify for free or reduced lunches based on their parents’ income, compared to 42.9 percent in Eugene’s 4J School District.
For The Village School’s first 11 years, Sodexo, a multinational food services management company, managed the school’s food service program through a contract with 4J. “Sodexo offered mostly highly processed, pre-packaged, heat-and-serve, conventional food from cans and boxes, with long lists of ingredients that included artificial colors, additives, preservations, hydrogenated oils, and sugar,” Stacey recounts.
First- and second-grade teacher Emily Swenson adds to the dismal options: syrupy canned peaches and gray-tinted green beans. At this time, an average of 60-70 students (28-32 percent) ate the school-provided lunch each day, very few students ate the sack breakfast, and staff rarely ate the meals.
In 2011, 4J determined that The Village School’s food service program was operating at a loss and allowed the school and other charter schools in the district to serve their own meals. For many parents and staff members, this decision was a godsend answer to efforts that had been in the works for some time.
Several years earlier, parents had formed a committee to start a kitchen and be responsible for the school’s food, explains Colleen Forbes, a licensed midwife and certified nutritional therapy practitioner. Her two children both attended The Village School through the eighth grade. However, the committee’s plan did not gain enough traction to overcome financial and logistical barriers to providing lunch service.
After hearing about the call for food service proposals, Toña felt a magnetic pull. “I immediately thought: I can do this. I’m going to do this.” A former Spanish teacher at the Eugene Waldorf School, she also ran a catering business while raising her two young children, now both students at The Village School. “I love to cook, and I was accustomed to ordering and preparing food in large quantities,” she says.
“We were overjoyed that Sodexo was out of the picture. We had an opportunity to create an ideal school food program, and perhaps a pilot for other schools,” Stacey adds. “Our vision was to support local, organic farmers and businesses, and raise a school full of children with nutritious and delicious food.”
Within two weeks, Toña and Stacey had developed a business plan. “We were optimistic about our success but met our goals within the first year,” says Toña. They wanted to create an affordable program that was supported – monetarily and in spirit – by the entire school community, while demonstrating that a USDA NSLP school could incorporate more vegetables, eliminate chocolate milk, and double the number of meals served.
In the summer of 2011, preparations for the scratch-based kitchen hit full stride. Converting the existing kitchen, previously used for primarily warming food, required a major overhaul and considerable equipment upgrades to outfit it for scratch cooking. “[Stacey and Toña] recruited so many volunteers and received many donations that first year,” Colleen says. Through volunteer work parties, parents and community members donated time, equipment, and funds to get the kitchen operational and lay in stocks of frozen soup and pesto made from donated produce.
Toña and Stacey are supported by three part-time assistants and a pool of parent volunteers. Meg Orion, a health coach and parent, has volunteered to prepare and serve food once a week throughout her daughter Jun’s kindergarten through third grade years. Now five years in, the Healthy Lunch Ladies have settled into a predictable and comfortable rhythm. “It appears so simple and flawless,” Meg says. “It’s not expensive food. In the kitchen you’ll see big buckets of rice, beans, and vegetables. That’s what kids need to learn and grow.”
The kitchen connects with local food producers and distributors when possible. The avocados and clementines, along with most of the produce used by the kitchen, are sourced from Organically Grown Company, a Northwest organic produce distributor. Horton Road Organics, located nearby in Blachly, Oregon, often supplies the salad greens. The farm also donates extra produce to the kitchen at the end of Eugene’s Tuesday farmers market, and typically makes a sizable basil donation each summer. Umpqua Dairy provides local, organic milk. Hummingbird Wholesale, a local distributor, provides dried goods such as beans and lentils.
The menu runs on a four-week seasonal rotation, with one new meal or dish typically introduced each month. Each meal includes unlimited salad bar and organic milk. Among the most popular meals are stacked enchiladas, rice and beans with Yumm! sauce, sandwich bar, stromboli, and the tofu ramen bowl. According to parents and teachers, the kids look forward to weekly favorites and seem to thrive on the consistency of the menu.
Now, fruits and vegetables sourced from local farms at the peak of ripeness fill the salad bar. Crisp, fresh greens, ruby-colored roasted beets, and sliced pears represent a significant contrast to the canned peaches and green beans that Emily recalls. “It was great to feel like I could finally let my kids eat lunch at school,” Colleen says.
For parents who lack the time or resources to prepare lunches at home for their children, The Kitchen churns out far healthier fare than most public schools. The full price for a student lunch is $3.50 and $5.00 for a non-student. Breakfast is $1.50 and $2.50. In fact, The Kitchen now attracts families to the school, which consistently has a long waiting list.
Bob Kaminski, who recently retired from a long career as a school administrator, was principal of The Village School 2010–2014 and oversaw The Kitchen’s transition. “It was my personal dream to serve healthy food to kids in public schools. I was moved by what I saw on a daily basis.” Bob spent many lunch periods observing the flow and climate of the lunchroom. “Visually, there was much less waste than before the kitchen transition. The kids were so excited and were actually eating the food, compared to before. It’s really incredible to watch a second- or third-grader mix oil and vinegar for their salad.”
Today, more than 70 percent of students eat breakfast or lunch at the school daily. In 2014, the school started offering teachers and staff free lunches as an employee incentive and most take advantage of this perk. “There’s a real sense of ownership in the kitchen that radiates outward,” Bob says. “The kitchen staff interact with the kids in a really positive way.” Bob observed more “pleases and thank-yous” from students after the kitchen transition. He also noted that the children love comparing their plates and pay more attention to clean-up activities, such as scraping their plates into the compost bins and sorting their dishes correctly.
Shared meals have also become an “equalizer,” says Emily. Teachers eat alongside the children, either in the classroom or outdoors, offering an opportunity to model good eating habits and etiquette. “We practice table manners during lunch,” Emily explains. They offer a simple thanks for the meal and eat with their napkins in their laps.
“It’s also a time for sharing,” Emily continues. A common conversation topic is what the kids are enjoying on their plates. Among her first- and second-graders, Emily has noticed that children who begin the year as picky eaters will find a few new fruits and vegetables they like by the end of the year, which she attributes to exposure to a wide variety of quality, fresh produce throughout the year. Teachers also report improved classroom functioning, since the shift to a scratch-based kitchen. “We’ve noticed a huge difference,” Emily says. “The students are not just filling their bellies; they’re getting what they need to grow and learn.”
Schools participating in the USDA National School Lunch Program receive cash subsidies for each meal served. In exchange, they must meet federal nutrition requirements and offer free and reduced prices to children who qualify. Operating within the context of the USDA guidelines requires practicality, compromises, and creativity. Among the detailed requirements, students are required to select a fruit or vegetable as part of the reimbursable meal, which requires adult supervision. Fruits and vegetables must be offered as two separate meal components along with whole grains and a meat or meat alternative, and fat-free or low-fat milk. Many nutrition professionals, including parents Meg and Colleen, contend that growing brains need fat and would benefit from whole milk. So The Kitchen adds healthy fats through other sources, like avocados and full-fat cheese.
Controlling costs remains a constant challenge, despite The Kitchen’s ingenuity and community outreach. In 2015, The Village School transitioned to serving only vegetarian meals. “We were committed to purchasing organic meat from Deck Family Farm,” Toña explains. Many parents appreciated this option, especially those with growing middle-school students. However, the high cost of the organic meat had to be accounted for elsewhere in The Kitchen’s food budget. Transitioning away from meat enabled the kitchen to purchase fully organic cheese, a long-time goal of the Healthy Lunch Ladies.
The Kitchen’s dedication to serving wholesome, healthy foods has attracted national attention. It won a Golden Carrot Award in 2015 for being one of the first public schools to offer vegetarian-only lunches. Additionally, The Village School was listed as one of five schools changing the future of healthy school lunches in a recent U.S. News and World Report article.
This past July, the Healthy Lunch Ladies said good-bye to The Kitchen, where nearly 200,000 meals were prepared over five years. The school purchased its own building and re-opened The Kitchen at the new location after extensive renovations in September 2016. Funding for the $150,000 kitchen construction and equipment came from grants, community donors, and awards.
Inside their sunny new kitchen, the Healthy Lunch Ladies have started detailing plans for a community benefit dinner in the fall, as a way to build awareness and give back to the village that has sustained it.
Katie Lewis Chamberlain is a Eugene-based freelance writer focused on food and agriculture in the Pacific Northwest.