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Providing A Healthy and Local Alternative to Junk Food Hot Lunches

When I was in high school, I used to avail myself, on occasion, of the hot lunch offering in the school cafeteria. While a lot can taste good if you’re a 16-year-old boy, the noxiousness of the contents of these foil packages inspired me to attempt a feat of engineering. I decided I would affix the foil tray and the contents contained therein to the ceiling of the cafeteria using only products (read: “gravy” with astonishing adhesive properties) contained in the lunch as it was served. I was determined to include the tray and as much of the food as possible in my exhibit and it was a total success-it was there, intact, for days, and a photo of it later appeared in the yearbook.

In relating this episode, I remain aware that a good many edible and wholesome substances have....artistic potential, and are suitable for light construction. However, the lunch I glued to the ceiling with gravy had a property not all food can be said to share—it looked the same on the ceiling as it did on a formica tabletop and it looked that way a week later as well. (I forgot to mention above that I glued it upside-down so that it looked freshly opened and served). Fodder enough to illustrate why some parents and professional caretakers might seek something else for their children to put in their bodies. And that’s where our story begins.

Fruit and veggies to local schools
The Off-Site Kitchen was already providing one local school with portioned and bagged raw fruit and vegetable snacks through the Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch program, a tributary of the REAP Food Group. In the fall of 2006, Willy Street Co-op quadrupled that offering to deliver weekly snacks drawn from local produce offerings to Lincoln, Midvale and Falk Elementary Schools as well as Sherman Middle School. In conjunction with Madison Metropolitan School District and REAP Food Group’s UW-Madison research assistant Amy Jacobs, the Off-Site Kitchen purchased, received, washed, prepared and bagged over 200 pounds of produce weekly for distribution to these schools. REAP project coordinator Doug Wubben provided product selection assistance along the way, often taking on the task of resourcing local product in challenging circumstances.

Hot lunch
This project was certainly something that I was personally excited about and committed to and the Co-op staff felt the same—being aware that you’re an instrumental part of improving a child’s health and nutrition options is certainly a morale booster for a tired cook. We knew there was more we could be doing, though, and we had gotten phone calls from parent volunteers wanting to investigate the possibility of the Off-Site Kitchen providing hot lunch for their school—even if on a limited basis at first. Many school budgets are already stretched and there was a general concern that either the food would be something the kids wouldn’t want or the cost would be too great. I understood both of these concerns and spent a good deal of time designing and costing menus that I thought would be both a viable business proposition for Willy Street Co-op and an attractive offering for any school administrator with hungry kids to feed.

After a great deal of discussion, research and false starts, the Co-op provided its first hot lunch service to the children of Wingra School on April 13th, 2007. They had cheese lasagna made with RP’s Pasta and organic tomato sauce, steamed organic broccoli with extra virgin olive oil and organic bananas and apples. I drove the first run and helped the parent volunteers get off the ground with portion control and serving techniques and then I toured the lunchroom talking to the kids. Notwithstanding a few requests for meat and bigger portions (in a range of grades, there are always a few future bruisers—you know who you are!), they loved it. The most common comments were, “You made this?!?!?!?” and “I even like the BROCCOLI!” This was a personal highlight of my time thus far at Willy Street. As an alumnus of Wingra School, the parent of a young child and the son of a farm girl, I was proud and gratified to see the great response the food received from the kids. We had been able to offer this menu, delivered hot and with the only disposable packaging being the recyclable cardboard cases the fruit came in, at a cost of $3.50 per meal. We continued to serve lunch once a week at Wingra for the remainder of the spring semester and will resume this fall.

Library lunch bunch
Over the summer, we also provided a series of hot lunches to the kids attending the Hawthorne Library Lunch Bunch. While story or craft time was always in full swing when we showed up with the food and prevented a lot of direct conversation with the kids, the smiles I saw when I opened the warmers and the smell wafted out were sufficient. Again, it was very rewarding to get out of the oft-abstracted world of data and inventory management and really see the results of what we do here, how powerfully it can impact people. Having that kind of contact with diners was always something I sought out and cherished in my restaurant career and I miss it now. My intention is to try to bring Willy Street Co-op’s cooking staff to the lunches at Wingra School this fall and to weave in staff participation in serving new school accounts as much as possible so that others can enjoy this as well.

In the future
So, I didn’t mean to get all mushy here—I started this out sounding like Eddie Haskell and now I’m looking for Frank Capra to yell, “Cut! Shut up, Perkins!” Improving food choices for children in school is something I am very committed to, though, and I think Off-Site Kitchen is in a position to provide a unique service to the Madison community in this way. I encourage school administrators or interested parents to contact me at my Co-op email address () if interested in discussing this burgeoning program. I am happy to provide menu and cost information and, to whatever extent time permits, to offer face time and presentations on the Off-Site Kitchen to parent groups and children as well. My emphasis in this article and as this project develops will be our commitment to providing food that kids will love to eat as well as being “good for you”—and, even if I don’t intend to get into a bidding war with a big foodservice outfit on pricing, I am out to show that you can make a quantum leap in quality and nutritive benefit by shelling out less than another dollar a meal. I know I pay that much extra to feed my own daughter the food I think she deserves and count it a bargain.