On the morning of Oct. 2, 2019, it’s as if the founding members of the Bellingham Farm-to-School team in 2009 had awoken from a dream, one that included scratch-made meals, sourced from local farms, fisheries and vendors, and served to students across Bellingham Public Schools; only on this morning, the dream was a reality.
While the “waking from a dream” metaphor is how it can feel sometimes to those who have been there from the start, the evolution of school lunch in Bellingham is much more a story of persistence and determination.
Here’s a quick recap on how we got here.
With the support of the Whatcom Community Foundation, a dedicated group of community members, parents and staff started looking at the school lunch program 10 years ago and have never stopped the movement forward with healthier, more wholesome meals in our school cafeterias. Some of the original members Mardi Solomon and Holly O’Neil of Whatcom Farm-to-School, Jessica Sankey, director of wellness in Bellingham Public Schools, Laura Plaut of Common Threads, and Mark Dalton of the district’s food services program, are all still actively involved.
The movement to re-invent school lunch made a huge leap with the voter-approved 2013 bond that financed a Central Kitchen, supported with additional funds from the Whatcom Community Foundation. Simultaneously, advisory groups focused on Farm to School, Food Services Visioning, development and implementation of the Good Food Promise, and Central Kitchen design continued to meet.
Bringing in additional staff to run a scratch-made model was the next major step and that is why the district brought on executive chef Patrick Durgan (in January 2017) and chef and culinary program supervisor Mataio Gillis (in February 2019). These were critical staff to transition to new menus, recipes and operating procedures.
Flash forward to Taste Washington Day 2019 where all the work of previous years was on full display. The scratch-made menu, designed by Gillis, included the main entrée of Lummi Island Wild salmon cakes and Bluebird Grain farro pilaf at all schools. In addition to the salmon cakes, at the middle and high school levels, a vegetarian option of a chickpea curry with organic coconut milk over brown rice was also served. (Very few vegetarian options were available before this school year.)
Bellingham Public Schools was happy to celebrate this year’s Taste Washington Day with some special visitors. These included the first lady of Washington state Trudi Inslee, Chris Iberle and staff from the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA), and staff from the Office of the Superintendent for Public Instruction (OSPI).
First Lady Inslee commented on a Facebook post yesterday how much she enjoyed her visit. She wrote, “I was thrilled to participate in the 9th annual Taste Washington Day in Bellingham! It was great to discuss the importance of local agriculture and healthy eating for kids in school.”
While in the district, Inslee and the other special guests visited the new Central Kitchen where the Taste Washington Day meal was prepared, then traveled to Cordata Elementary where they observed kindergarteners in a school garden class taught by an educator from Common Threads. Afterwards they all joined students for lunch and the “Washington Apple Crunch” in the cafeteria. The third stop was the brand new Sehome High School visiting several innovative programs in career and technical education, including culinary arts classes.
Iberle, WSDA’s farm-to-school specialist, noted the connection that school cafeterias can have with local farms. He wrote, “It was fun to see, and taste, firsthand how Bellingham is using local ingredients in their school meals to support farmers, and educating students about how food is grown.”
“Along with dozens of districts across the state, Bellingham’s program highlights how schools and community partners work together to put delicious, healthy meals on student lunch trays, and provide a market for Washington farmers.”
The Taste Washington meal on Oct. 2 included farro from Bluebird Grain (Winthrop, WA) and beets from Joe’s Garden (Bellingham), as well as salmon caught by Lummi fisher Ellie Kinley, who works with Keith Carpenter of Lummi Island Wild. Both Kinley and Carpenter attended lunch with Inslee and Iberle at Cordata Elementary.
The success of Taste Washington Day 2019 in Bellingham was the result of years of foundational work, community support, and the underlying belief that nutritious, delicious meals matter for our kids (the Good Food Promise). Making connections with our local agriculture and our beautiful Salish Sea makes it all the better.
Perhaps it is summed up best by Solomon, Whatcom county’s farm-to-school coordinator, who was there in 2009 when the big push began. “Taste Washington Day is the annual celebration of local food in school meals,” she said, “and we really have a lot to celebrate in Bellingham this year!”
“The fabulous chefs and staff in the new Central Kitchen are making truly delicious meals with fresh and local ingredients every day. Add to that the garden and cooking lessons with Common Threads, our students are learning how to grow, harvest, prepare and enjoy healthy, fresh food that tastes great. We have really come a long way, thanks to everyone’s hard work and determination to serve our kids real food made with love.”
This school year, local connections to farms, fisheries and vendors are highlighted on school menus with a special icon.