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EDIBLE EDUCATION: Keene a leader in the food revolution

December 24, 2014
By ANDY FLYNN - Editor ( , Lake Placid News

KEENE VALLEY - Steer clear of the light switch in the Keene Central School cafeteria. If the lights go out by accident, everyone will start singing "Happy Birthday" and nobody will be able to see all the homemade food.

That's right. The food prepared for the school's breakfast and lunch is made from scratch, even the pizza dough, desserts and wheat bread.

"You walk in during the morning, and the smell of fresh bread is wafting through the school," said science teacher Mary Werner, eating pizza from a red tray in the cafeteria. "There are constant reminders that we are eating fresh food."

Article Photos

Keene Central School Nutrition Manager Julie Holbrook, left, and cook Lisa Parker put food on a plate for a student during pizza day.
(News photo — Andy Flynn)

Moments before, seventh grader Charlotte Ward was walking through the lunch line. She had to make a choice between cooked broccoli or cabbage to go with her pizza.

"Do you want cabbage?" cook Shannon Shambo asked.

"Yes," Ward said with a smile.

Asked why she was so enthusiastic about eating cabbage, Ward said, "I like that it's all natural and healthy and that I actually know what they put into it. I like that there are no preservatives."

Ward could have also grabbed fresh fruit and vegetables from the salad bar - including fresh oranges, kale salad with carrots and coleslaw - and eaten a gluten-free brownie made with black beans.

Ward's favorite meal at school is grilled cheese and tomato soup. In fact, the grilled cheese is so popular that kitchen employees have to cook extras just to keep up with demand.

"We have about 140 kids that eat, but with the adults and the seconds, we have to make about 225 grilled cheese every time we make it," Shambo said.

Parents can credit KCS Nutrition Manager Julie Holbrook and her team for transforming the school's meals and food culture that has led to homemade meals and better nutrition for their children.

"Children have a right to eat good food, and they have good taste buds if you allow them," Holbrook said. "Ask them what they think. Should we put more garlic in it? Should we do this? All of sudden, they have input, and they want to eat it. It's marketing. When I see the people who say, 'Oh the kids won't eat it, and they're throwing it away.' Well, what are you doing to avoid that? What are you doing to make sure that doesn't happen the next meal? Why aren't you have the kids involved to make it better? Not to be judgmental, but there are many ways to skin that cat of getting a child to eat a good meal."


Holbrook hired

In January 2007 - three years before President Barack Obama signed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act - KCS Interim Superintendent Cynthia Johnston hired Holbrook as the school's nutrition manager. Within months, she had made a number of changes to the cafeteria food.

By June of that year, she was using butter instead of margarine, shell eggs instead of processed eggs, and fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables instead of canned fruits and vegetables. By September 2007, the she was using tomatoes, greens, peas, squash and kale from the school gardens for meals. By June 2008, staffers were making most of the school's food from scratch. A year later, they were making all the bread products from scratch, including pizza dough. By September 2010, all beef was being bought from local farms, there was no flavored milk and the school became a CSA member of the Essex Farm.

"My big philosophy is at the end of the day, I'd like a child to have been given enough food and nutrients that the parents don't have to worry," Holbrook said. "They have enough to deal with."

Beginning in 2012, all schools that accepted money for the federal free and reduced lunch program had to start meeting the new Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act standards, which were phased in over time. New snack guidelines went into effect this year. In short, the law requires schools to increase availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fat-free and low-fat fluid milk in school meals; reduce levels of sodium, saturated fat and trans fats in meals; and meet nutrition needs of school children within their calorie requirements.

Holbrook was well ahead of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act and has surpassed the minimum standards. She's now taken her experiences on the road, transforming the food program at the Schroon Lake Central School District for the past couple of years and is currently working with the Moriah and Crown Point schools to do the same. And she helped write the "School Nutrition Toolkit," which was published by Essex County Public Health in 2013.

"If everybody doesn't every day hit the ground running, it doesn't work," Holbrook said. "I have people who sweat every day. I'm so lucky. ... Cynthia Johnston was our superintendent when I started, and she has her own farm. She's organic. She's brilliant. She's well spoken. She gave me such latitude that I was able to experiment and try new things."

Holbrook buys local products from a number of farms in the region. KCS has a community-supported agriculture agreement with Essex Farm for eggs and produce and buys low-spray apples from Gunnison Orchard in Crown Point. Additionally, the school buys grass-fed ground beef from the Ben Wever Farm in Willsboro and vegetables from Juniper Hill Farm in Wadhams and Harvest Hill Farm in Willsboro.


KCS meals

For breakfast, Keene Central offers eggs, bagels, toast, yogurt, oatmeal, granola, fruit, fruit juice and milk. On certain days, they also offer breakfast burritos and English muffin sandwiches.

Lunches and snacks vary, but they are always made from scratch, other than some staples such as yogurt, string cheese and packaged sunflower seeds.

Holbrook's kitchen team includes Shambo, Lisa Parker and Jocelyn Lopez.

"We have five people together who are so passionate about what they do," Holbrook said. "We all have our own children - mine have all grown up - in this school that they have a vested interest. Their heart and soul is here already. But we're also foodies. We love food. We believe in the power of food to make you healthy, to make you feel good, and we believe it should be part of the curriculum. You can't study unless you've eaten well. You can't concentrate."

With a school enrollment of 179 in September, they cook lunches for up to 145-150 students.

"We usually have 72 to 90 percent participation rate," Holbrook said.

These school lunches are much different than the ones Holbrook's team remembers while growing up.

"One of our famous things was the bright yellow cheese sauce on everything," Shambo said. "So you ate it on your tater tots. You ate it on your ham patty. You ate it on your cheeseburger. You ate it on pretty much everything. You ladled it right on."

Popular meals now include pizza, chicken fajitas, the baked potato bar, tacos and the rice bar.

"We do plain rice, roasted chicken and then we'll have black beans and corn up there so they can make their own combination," Lopez said. "Then the salad bar is full of different colors."

The kitchen workers try a lot of different recipes so the students will eat the food. Holbrook has even been accused of "hiding" nutrient-rich food in recipes so the kids will get their vitamins and minerals. Black beans in the brownies. Vegetables in the tomato soup. They try new things based on what students tell them. And, for the most part, it's working.

"I know pretty much everything we put out the kids will eat. It's amazing," Lopez said. "You'll see when this next group comes through. They load on everything. We have some picky kids, but for the most part, if we put it out there, they will take it. We try different ways of presenting it to them. We keep at it, keep at it."

Holbrook said it doesn't happen overnight. It's an evolution.

"It's learning to realize that fruits and vegetables not only taste good, but they fill you up and help keep you going," Holbrook said. "That's a process."

Science teacher Mary Werner usually eats with the middle school students and buys her lunch most days because she enjoys the food. She sees what students like and dislike, and there are always mixed reviews.

"There was some resistance at first when we made changes," Werner said. "We got rid of chocolate milk. And nobody even noticed after a while. If we would have done that two years earlier, people would have had a fit."

As time passes, students don't necessarily see their school food as "healthy."

"When you look around to see how many are buying lunches, there's a lot of bought lunches," Werner said.


Making changes

Holbrook was hired to make changes at the Keene Central School, so there was already buy-in from the administration, school board, staff, parents and community. But that doesn't mean it was easy. And while she maintains that other schools, even larger ones such as Moriah, can make food from scratch, she's realistic about the many challenges lunch-room reformers are facing on a daily basis.

"It's hard with a budget, and every school is different," Holbrook said. "I'm saying every school can cook from scratch, but I'm not being correct. They need the equipment. They need the kitchen. They need the labor hours. They need the ability. They need someone who can look at the whole picture. ... In a school system, it's so political. It's all about the bottom line. Everyone means well, but that's the reality."

So who is ultimately responsible for the success at Keene Central? Holbrook gives credit to the entire team: her kitchen workers, administrators, faculty, staff, parents, students, local farmers and volunteers. It seems the entire community gets involved with the school's food program.

"Julie will put out an email that says, 'We just got 50 bushes of tomatoes from Essex Farm. Can we have people come down and process it?'" Werner said. "Parents and community members who don't even have children at the school will come in, and there will be 15 people in the kitchen processing the tomatoes that we'll freeze and use in soup and pasta sauces for the rest of the year."

It's a common misconception, Holbrook said, that it costs more to make school food from scratch. She's shown, time and again, that it actually saves her district money. And she takes that savings and redirects it to labor or the cost of food.

"When you serve processed foods, at the end of the day whatever is leftover can't be saved," Holbrook said. "You can't take a chicken nugget and re-heat it and have it taste well. If you make your own chicken nuggets, you can re-heat them, and they'll be just fine. And that, exponentially, little bit of money saves you. And it also saves you the next time. You don't have to put as much labor starting from scratch again. So you're making a processed food, but it's a natural processed food."


School garden

A major part of Keene Central's farm-to-school program is having students work in the gardens. Each K-6 class has two 8x12-foot beds, one for planting this year and another for improving the soil for next year's crop.

"Each class likes to plant something different," said garden coordinator Bunny Goodwin. "Kindergarten likes to plant pumpkins. The primary does a Three Sisters garden of corn, beans and squash. Last year, a lot of classes planted carrots."

The after-school Garden Club working the beds, plants and harvests. They made tea bags with herbs, and fresh produce from the garden is used to make food for the cafeteria.

"This year, there was a Mexican theme," Goodwin said. "We grew tons of dry beans, and we had a taco party. Last year was a pizza theme, and we had a pizza party. We made our own sauce with tomatoes, peppers, onions and garlic. It teaches the kids that the gardening isn't immediate. It takes a while."

In 1995, Goodwin started the school's compost program, which is performed by members of the National Honor Society. Students sort their own garbage and compostable material after eating lunch. It's an educational activity unto itself.

"With composting, I realized you're throwing so much less away if you're using whole foods," Goodwin said. "The apple core can be composted. The skins of the vegetables can be composted. You're not dealing with prepackaged stuff, like most schools have these prepackaged things of applesauce. You get a gazillion of them. All that plastic is thrown away. It will take up to a thousand years to degrade in the landfill."

Inside the school this year, students have begun to grow, harvest and eat pea shoots. It takes one to two weeks before the harvest. After-school kids began the project, then fourth grade students picked up the duties. They, in turn, taught the fifth grade students, who taught the sixth grade students. After Christmas, the third graders will grow pea shoots and then the other elementary and middle school students.

"The kids love them," Goodwin said. "The cafeteria ladies told me last week, there are kids that won't eat vegetables who absolutely love these. They're really sweet."

Growing vegetables in the school gardens helps students a number of ways. They learn about nutrition, physical exercise, developing a stewardship for the land and composting.

"This year I was working the garden after school one day, and this grandmother showed up to pick up her son, who is in elementary school," Goodwin said. "She came up to me and said, 'Thank you.' And I said, 'For what?' She said, 'Since my son started working in the garden, now he eats vegetables. Now he likes vegetables.' And I was like, this is what's supposed to happen. It really does prove that if the kids participate in growing, they're more likely to eat the fresh foods."


Fresh start

Shannon Pitcher-Boyea began the school year as Keene's new K-8 principal, coming from the much-larger Franklin Academy high school in Malone, where she was the assistant principal. That was also her alma mater, and growing up, she remembers "lots of tater tots and chicken nuggets" in the cafeteria. So when she walked in the KCS cafeteria and saw fresh bread cooling on the counter, she had to take a photo with her cellphone.

"People thought I was crazy," Pitcher-Boyea said. "They said, 'What are you doing?' I'm like, 'I'm taking a picture of the bread.' And they said, 'Why?' And I'm like, 'Because nobody does this. Who makes homemade bread at school?' So I walk around and take pictures of food. I'm still in awe."

Pitcher-Boyea was shocked to see the KCS staff making food from scratch, and she likes food.

"I ask for recipes now," she said. "When you're asking your cafeteria for recipes, who does that?"

And it didn't take long to make an impression.

"My first day I sat down with a first grader and she said, 'We just cut this lettuce from the garden this morning, and now we're eating it for lunch,'" Pitcher-Boyea said. "She got it, and it was the coolest part of my day. ... If they ever transfer to another school, they're going to say, 'Wow, was I ever lucky in Keene.'"

Pitcher-Boyea doesn't just see the meal program from an administrator's viewpoint; she's also a parent.

"I love our school food, but I'm even more excited for my daughter to come here next year," Pitcher-Boyea said. "She'll be a kindergarten student, and she goes to a school right now where she doesn't want to eat the school food. So I'm excited for her, not only that I don't have to pack her a lunch but that she'll be excited to eat school food and she will be getting healthy food. And it makes me more aware of what I'm giving her at home."



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