The first 100-percent local meal served at all five schools served by district food service on Friday included vegetarian or beef chili, corn bread and a salad bar.
Mostly, the kids loved it, but some opted for cold turkey and cheese slices with vegetables.
Local, organic meals won’t be served everyday right away due to physical and financial limitations, but Christina Lehman, nutrition services director, said that some aspect of school lunches such as options on the daily salad bar will always be local.
“Parents have been telling us they want more local, scratch-made food,” Lehman said. “But it gets kind of tricky being able to pay for that and having enough man hours in the kitchen, but we’re working on it and my goal is to bring in as much local stuff as I can.”
A group of second graders digging into their plates collectively agreed that they loved the meal and the fact that it was local. They even said they wanted more meals like this.
“It’s the best thing they’ve ever served here,” second-grader Lilah Peterson said.
Third-grader Miriam Preskemis said she normally packs her lunch, but decided to eat school lunch Friday because she loves chili and it was locally made.
“I want them to do more local lunches because it’s healthier,” Miriam said.
Lehman said the number of students eating school lunch began declining. So, she began reaching out to local companies when she joined the school district in July.
“We’re trying to transition from processed foods to whole foods,” Lehman said.
Every portion of Friday’s lunch was locally sourced. Even the cheese was donated by Rogue Creamery.
Lehman said she’s hoping to have a steady flow of seasonal, locally grown produce.
“There will be something local every day on the salad bar,” Lehman said.
Finding the balance on the limited funding is key, Lehman said. There will be a lot of mixing organic and local foods with what’s called “heat and serve” foods. But, she is trying to source more natural heat and serve foods such as chicken from Tyson that is free of hormones and antibiotics.
“Slowly, as more and more kids are eating, we’ll be able to put more money into the kitchens to do more scratch-type cooking for the kids,” Lehman said.
The kitchens are limited to what can be cooked because there are only ovens and burners. So, essentially a big pot of chili can be cooked from scratch, but there’s not a way to grill fresh hamburger patties.
The goal is to have at least three entirely local meals a year depending on availability of products.
“I want kids to eat real food, not processed food,” Lehman said. “We need to really cut back on the amount of processed food that children get.”
Lehman said the federal lunch program under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 implemented under the Obama administration changed school lunch standards. At that time a lot of schools switched to more heat and serve options and the numbers of kids eating school lunches dropped. However, the manufacturers have started making better products, the schools have found better ways to cook these foods and some standards have been adjusted.
“Five years ago, we went to 100-percent whole wheat spaghetti noodles and the kids absolutely wouldn’t touch it,” Lehman said. “It was like cardboard to them.”
Lehman said parents are highly encouraged to come eat lunch with their kids, so they can see what’s being served.
“Parents all over the nation have a misconception of what their kids are eating at school,” Lehman said. She said it’s important for them to know what their kids are eating at school and that, at least in Ashland, changes are happening.