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District Nutrition Services Features Locally Sourced Food and Scratch Cooking

CHENEY, Wash – When you peruse through Cheney Public Schools’ monthly lunch menu, you may find your stomach beginning to rumble. Honey Mustard Chicken Breast Sandwich, Washington State Bison Chili with Black Beans, Chicken and Waffles, or maybe a Cheese Zombie with Classic Tomato Basil Soup is more your style. Whatever you prefer, the school lunch options for district students are expansive, and Director of Nutrition Services LJ Klinkenberg has utilized grants and other funding to provide an experience more aligned with farm-to-table: fresh, local produce and locally raised meats to expose students to a wider variety of foods that can best fuel their bodies, mostly made from scratch.

It is a tall order, especially given the state and federal requirements that Klinkenberg and his team are required to follow for school nutrition. Just a short glance at the USDA Food and Nutrition Services Nutrition Standards for School Meals shows the extensive rules and policies public school districts must follow in order to receive federal funding. The regulations are expansive and exhaustive, down to the number of calories, sodium, trans fats, and carbohydrates meals can include over the course of a week.

“I’ve been working in school food since 2011, and since that time, regulations and rules have continued to increase while still giving us options,” Klinkenberg said. “My cooks will tell you, it’s kind of like nutritional Jenga. You’ve got to figure out what fits on which day, and every menu has to match that five-day cycle menu.”

And a difficult nutritional Jenga at that. Klinkenberg and his team utilize locally grown produce and vendors as often as possible while also making the majority of meals from scratch. Each district school may serve between 300-500 students per meal every day, and that takes a lot of planning and forethought not only by Klinkenberg, but by each of his kitchen leads as well.

“It really depends on the items we are serving,” says Dani Meredith-Bercot, Windsor Elementary’s kitchen lead. “Scratch cooking requires a lot more forethought and prep time…We are ordering about three weeks in advance, and my mind is about a month ahead all the time.

It’s really hard because we have so many laws that we have to follow,” Meredith-Bercot continued. “When Chef Klink sets a menu, it’s based on the week. So, every week, kids can have a certain amount of sodium, a certain number of calories, a certain number of grams of protein. All of that is accounted for and set for us, so we don’t have to think about it when we go to order.”

To give you an idea, Windsor Elementary—which any given day serves about 500 students for lunch—has been ordering an average of 2,389.9 pounds of fresh produce and dairy per week over the last month. Meredith-Bercot places orders with multiple distributors about three weeks in advance, just to keep everything on schedule.

“If one thing slips through the cracks, our kids don’t get fed as efficiently as they should,” echoed Rita Whittaker, Sunset Elementary’s Kitchen Lead.

Scratch cooking is not something every district offers, nor is the commitment to sourcing food locally. Many school districts have to purchase food from macro, national sources; those sources in turn ship foods from much farther distances, requiring those foods to be frozen. Though frozen food is still high quality and meets state and federal regulations for school food service, it loses some of its nutritional value. Macro food sources also have no positive financial impact on the local community, and the families who live here.

“The fresher we can get [food], the more we can keep it local, we keep our communities healthy with supporting local farmers, the families that work for those farms, and so on and so on,” Klinkenberg said. “And we get to work with some amazing products.

If I can keep it in Washington state for quality, for supporting our state and what we do in our communities, and get the best nutritious food I can for the children, that’s what I get up every day and come in for.”

There is an abundance of Washington state produce that has been sourced for Cheney Public Schools district meals. Chef Klinkenberg and his team introduced locally raised bison—purchased with a grant from the Washington State Agriculture Department—to serve as Bison Chili with Black Beans. They also secured a grant for wild-caught Coho salmon, which led to a Roasted Salmon Pesto Flatbread. Chef Klinkenberg has also utilized tomatoes and Italian plums from Spokane Valley, as well as grass-fed beef from Dayton. Though the opportunity to serve fresh, local food takes a lot of effort, it is worth the reward of exposing students to new food options that can expand their pallet and appreciation for food, all while supporting the local economy and citizens.

With the district’s food service, high-quality, nutritious meals and exposure to new, never-before-tried foods go hand-in-hand. At Sunset Elementary, Whittaker has explored a variety of different fruits on her salad bar, like kumquats, pomelos, pink pineapple, Oro Blanco grapefruit, papaya, and persimmon as well as more common Pacific Northwest fruits like strawberries and grapes.

“They are excited to see those things because they may not get them at home, or they may not get them as often at home,” Whittaker said. “For most families right now, [fresh fruit] is not something they can afford on a regular basis. Getting that nutrition to our kids is good for them because they need strawberries, they need grapes, they need vegetables, because it all gives them a balanced diet. It gives them all the things they need to learn. All the nutrients, all the minerals.”

“I know that [students] are learning that fresh food tastes different, and when you see a salad bar that is a rainbow of color, you’re more willing to try the new, exciting things, and it’s less scary and daunting,” Meredith-Bercot added. “You have to be taught how to try new things and be excited about it and not nervous about it. So, we try to put the full rainbow out there on the salad bar as much as we can.”

Cooking scratch meals from locally sourced ingredients has become the norm at Cheney Public Schools, thanks to the hard work and effort from Klinkenberg and his entire district team. The opportunity to cook with such fresh ingredients and interact daily with children has drawn some highly talented, highly educated culinary staff; both Whittaker and Meredith-Bercot hold culinary degrees. Whittaker has over 15 years of professional experience including several years at The Davenport Hotel, while Meredith-Bercot was educated and trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Seattle. Local, superb talent combined with fresh, local ingredients, added to the strength of the nutrition teams across the district has created a recipe for success.

“Through passive culinary education, [students] get to try a quality product that Washington state produces,” said Klinkenberg. “That’s part of our job, providing good, quality meals, but also that education of where it comes from, why we have it, and why it’s important they try it. For their health, and for the quality of our state, and the process of the food that we do in this state.”