Reconnecting Schools to Real Food

Chef Tom French has a vision of a school food system that serves healthy local food, and builds bridges between the classroom and the kitchen. This is Chef Tom's story.
Friday Harbor Elementary School fifth grade lunch helpers get ready to serve lunch to their peers and teachers. Photo by Ruthie Paull. Photo courtesy Food Experience Project
Friday Harbor Elementary School fifth grade lunch helpers get ready to serve lunch to their peers and teachers. Photo by Ruthie Paull

I feel that in schools today we do not place a lot of value on what our students eat. After all, people think you can produce an adequate nutritious school lunch for $2.75 inclusive of labor and food. More and more people understand that what we’re feeding kids in school is not as healthy as it should be, but the conversation continues to revolve around money. Which do we value more: health and vitality or money?

At the Experience Food Project, our initial foray into education was really to focus on the root cause of the rising level of obesity and diabetes among school-age children, as well as the social dilemma that has allowed us to get to this point. In our culture, we are suffering from a major disconnect with our food: where it comes from, who grows it, when it grows, how it gets here, and who prepares it. As unlikely as it might seem, this disconnect presents us with an important opportunity to develop community-based solutions to many issues by exploring innovation as a core value.

Everything the Experience Food Project does with schools is viewed through the lens of systemic change strategy. We are developing a strategy that tackles both the practical how-to issues and the more important social values issues, such as understanding where your food comes from, spending time together around the table, and nurturing as well as nourishing our students. Kids need to know that a food system is a living organism and not something super sized at will and served up in a manufactured environment. With this sort of systems change approach, we are looking around the edges to see what might be possible, including approaches that have not been considered yet.

Friday Harbor third graders
Friday Harbor third graders "Taste, Talk, and Try" during the Experience Food Project's Chef in the Classroom Enrichment Program. Photo by Natasha Frey

In the 2008-09 school year the San Juan Island School District became a pilot school for our Extreme School Food Makeover Challenge. We were already in discussion with them about our classroom enrichment programs; at the same time, they were debating the possibility of eliminating school meals service as a cost-cutting measure. We were coincidentally looking for a district willing to partner with us on a best practices model that would include a fully integrated and comprehensive classroom enrichment strategy, access to data, and control of the food service operation. I felt strongly that the food must reflect the values that we are promoting.

Through a series of community conversations, we explored the realities of that approach and what the potential impact of such a key decision could be, particularly how it would impact families that qualify for free and reduced meal programs. This pilot program truly was a win-win situation for everyone, especially the students.

With our school programs, we try to focus on eating as a continuation of education as opposed to an interruption of education. Working with the school and its union employees, we have remodeled the kitchen at Friday Harbor High School and developed a rich lunch menu featuring local foods, such as tacos with local grass-fed beef. Most farm-to-school programs get the “why” but not the “how,” or perhaps are naïve about the specifics of how a local school food system would work. For example, when does most food come into season? The peak of summer and early fall. And when is school not in session? The peak of summer and early fall. With the San Juan Island School District, we are trying to address this by acquiring some value-added equipment. Students will be canning and freezing local fruits and vegetables, making the school more self-sufficient while providing access to the equipment for local producers. That is the only way to achieve equitable margins for growers and schools.

The most gratifying aspect of this project for me is the appreciation students have for the quality of the food, which they in turn interpret as respect. With teachers, the impact has been felt in the classroom and in the hallways. I think some of the best feedback I heard was from an administrator who commented on the community building taking place at the lunch tables. Staff participation is high. Teachers who had not eaten school meals in ten years are now enjoying lunch with their students and colleagues.

In fact, if I could have Michael Soltman, the San Juan District Superintendent, be our spokesperson, I would. This partnership has had a profound impact on him. For most superintendents, the school meals program falls low on the radar screen. Most superintendents have to be so focused on bottom line issues these days that it is hard to find time for the things that really matter. When he saw what we had to offer in terms of what the community valued, he became our most vocal supporter.

I think the time is right and people are really looking at the values system we have been living by and saying, “something needs to be different,” including everything from money to food to education.

I often say that a lifetime of work is now the work of a lifetime; in other words, if our work contributes to a solution that has broad impact on values education, I would feel like we have done our job.

Chef Tom French

Chef Tom is a seasoned chef, consultant, and trainer with over 40 years of professional foodservice experience. Among many other accomplishments, he has served as executive chef and operations manager at FareStart, taught foodservice management at Bastyr University, and received the U.S. Mayors Anti-Hunger Award. He is founder and director of the , an organization that aims to reconnect communities with sustainable food systems.

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