Restaurant News & Reviews

Why farm-to-school lunches work: ‘Feed kids, not the trash can’

Sts. Peter and Paul Regional Catholic School students Ella Thiel, Audra Pierce and Nate Coen chose lunch from items made with ingredients for the apple cinnamon muffins came from Weisenberger in Midway and the apple pumpkin bread ingredients came from Quarles Farm, Waddy. The layered salad, served in a plastic container that Coen selected had items from at least four different Kentucky farms.
Sts. Peter and Paul Regional Catholic School students Ella Thiel, Audra Pierce and Nate Coen chose lunch from items made with ingredients for the apple cinnamon muffins came from Weisenberger in Midway and the apple pumpkin bread ingredients came from Quarles Farm, Waddy. The layered salad, served in a plastic container that Coen selected had items from at least four different Kentucky farms.

Pop quiz: Which is a better school lunch? Burritos made with locally sourced beef, peppers and salsa or a “walking taco,” otherwise known as a bag of Fritos with generic taco meat and liquid cheese poured in?

Trick question, actually, because you can’t get the burrito in most public schools.

But you can at Sts. Peter and Paul Regional Catholic School in Lexington.

This year, the school launched a new menu that will feed about 300 lunches a day to students at two locations using farm-to-table ingredients, according to Jeanne Miller, president of the schools.

No more Fritos. In fact, the school gave up lots of student favorites, including traditional pizza, in favor of daily salads made with lettuce from Bluegrass Aquaponics, and cucumbers from Flat Creek Farm. Or breakfast for lunch with Weisenberger Mill biscuits, eggs from Stone Fall Farm and bacon from Pike Valley Farm.

“I was preparing for the resistant factor,” Miller said.

In fact, sales of lunches are up 38 percent to students, despite a 25-cent price increase to $3.25. And staff are eating more often from the cafeteria, too, she said.

The change was the suggestion of a student, Lilly Meekin, who came to Miller last year after seeing a documentary program on farm-to-table school lunches and asked, why can’t we do this here?

Lilly Meekin, who suggested that Sts. Peter and Paul switch to farm-to-table lunches, ate with Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles and state lawmakers who visited the school for Farm-to-School Lunch Month. Charles Bertram

“She said, ‘we need healthier choices, we need better food,’” Miller said. So they started researching how to make it happen.

The private school decided to opt out of the USDA’s National School Lunch Program, which meant giving up a subsidy of up to 20 percent of their budget to pay for free or reduced-price lunches. But that freed them to purchase whatever they chose.

“There were a lot of restrictions and waste with National School Lunch program,” Miller said. “We had to use certain portions, certain foods, and put something on everybody’s plate, so there was a lot of waste.”

Ironically, even though her students aren’t being fed according to federal nutrition guidelines, Miller thinks they are eating healthier now.

“We don’t mandate that they eat it,” she said. “But we have a chef now, who actually prepares the food. And he’s always testing back in the kitchen.”

Few public schools can afford to make that decision, and Miller said she understands why:

“It is about feeding kids. If I have to choose between a kid being fed or not, I don’t care what he’s being fed, as much. That’s just reality,” she said.

The other problem Fayette County Public Schools face, said Ashton Potter Wright, Lexington’s farm-to-table food coordinator, is the lack of a central processing kitchen that can take items like raw meat and cook it or whole fruits and vegetables and prepare them for 52 different locations.

“Infrastructure is a big one ... they are on a heat-and-serve model, not a lot of scratch cooking,” Wright said.

That makes it harder for farmers to sell their meat, vegetables or fruit to the schools, which is one of the goals.

But Wendy Young, food service coordinator for Fayette County Public Schools, said that they have been able to use the kitchens at the city’s five high schools (and soon the one at the new Frederick Douglass High School, too) to process produce for the other schools on a rotating basis.

So far, the schools haven’t tackled meat, but they’ve done lettuce, cucumbers, watermelon, broccoli, butternut squash and apples, she said.

In the 2015-16 year, Fayette County schools spent $34,000 on local produce; last year that more than doubled to $75,000, and that doesn’t include processed items that include Kentucky-grown produce, she said.

It’s only a small part of the $5 million to $7 million school food budget, said Michelle Coker, director of child nutrition for Fayette County schools. But the Fayette County schools have a chef who helps with ways to use produce such as butternut squash and all the schools are able to cut up and prepare fruit and vegetables.

Tina Garland, who runs the farm-to-school program for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, has seen growth since the state’s program started in 2010. More schools are incorporating local farm items and more are cooking their own food these days, she said. The most common items served include tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, zucchinis, lettuce, blueberries, strawberries and watermelon.

“The farm-to-school movement is changing that. Better education on school quality is changing that,” Garland said. “It is not a novelty; it’s becoming a way of life.”

Recently she visited Bath County schools, where the line for the salad bar in the middle school cafeteria was longer than the line for the hot bar. “That’s amazing,” she said. “They like those fresh fruits and vegetables and choosing what they can eat.”

And school lunch administrators see how valuable that is, she said. “They are there to feed kids, not the trash can.”

According to the Kentucky Department of Education, 135 schools with more than 55,000 students will participate in a separate federal program to give away free fresh fruit and vegetables to schoolkids for snacks. Eleven Fayette County public elementary schools are participating.

Chef James Hamilton made fresh black bean and corn salsa during lunch. Hamilton has devised menus, with the help of kid tasters, that have helped boost sales of lunch by 38 percent this year. Charles Bertram

At Sts. Peter and Paul, chef Jamie Hamilton, with the help of kid tasters, has come up with menus that incorporate all-local chicken, beef, pork and eggs, and a wide array of local produce.

“We have pulled chicken tacos, chicken made with salsa that’s made from tomatoes from a Kentucky farmer. A burrito bowl, and today we’ll be having fajitas. And we have pulled pork,” Miller said. “And I’m most proud of our salads in a jar.”

They couldn’t figure out the logistics of salad bar. So they serve layered salads in plastic containers.

“Yesterday it was Cobb salad,” she said. “You grab it, you dump it, and you’ve got your lunch.”

Other menus include hamburgers and spaghetti with marinara made with tomatoes grown in Burlington.

“Their favorite is chicken noodle soup,” Miller said. All the chicken comes from Pike Valley Farm in Garrard County.

But all that local produce and meat costs more. So far this year, Miller said the school is about $3,000 in the red, but she is hoping to make that up through donations. Her goal is to make the farm-to-table lunch program pay for itself either with another slight price increase or increased sales.

And having the program is a potential draw that could help the private school boost enrollment, something all Catholic schools are struggling with, Miller said.

“My goal is to do a phenomenal program and drive programming that is a direct benefit for students and their families,” Miller said. “And we have had great feedback. We’ve had calls from people who are touring the school for next year and farm-to-table is a big hot button.”

This year will be used to track costs and benefits and adjust, she said. “Is this sustainable? ... Absolutely.”

One of the first re-adjustments: bringing back pizza.

The chef has figured out a way to make a crispy crust using crushed tortillas, she said. “We’re trying to bring in the fun stuff in a healthy way.”

Janet Patton: 859-231-3264, @janetpattonhl.