Seattle Schools Serve Up Some Haute Lunch

The district’s just landed a brand-new food guru, whose bringing slow-food rules to the lunch line f
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Paging Jamie Oliver! There are chicken nuggets and sausage-on-a-stick on the Seattle Public Schools’ lunch menu. The ravioli comes from a Chef Boyardee can. But like the popular British chef whose U.S. television documentary, Lunch Line, exposes the horrors of school lunchrooms, the Seattle school district’s new head of nutrition services, Eric Boutin, is fighting on the front lines for improvement.

On some days, lunch entrées now include homemade hummus and feature a locally grown “harvest of the month” (plums this month, cucumbers for October). Focus groups of children are taste-testing dishes like sautéed kale with brown rice. Workers in the 40,000-square-foot central kitchen mix nutritious spinach in with the romaine-and-iceberg salads. Through King County grant dollars aimed at promoting health and preventing chronic disease, the kitchen staff is getting tutorials in whole foods cooking from nutritionists and chef instructors, learning everything from knife skills to folding pot stickers.

It’s all about the kids, of course. But it’s more complicated than calculus class to figure out how to get good food into kids via 90 separate lunchrooms, some only set up for prepacked “grab and go” meals.

The big health push comes partly from Boutin, who arrived last year with a reputation for improving cafeteria quality in past jobs. An advocate of the slow food movement (think unprocessed, nutritious, community based), Boutin is committed to serving whole foods in the schools, preferably using fruits and vegetables from local growers, and inspiring kitchen cooks to use their own talents to incorporate whole foods. His previous work in Auburn schools brought in more roasted chickens and fewer breaded nuggets, favoring whole Skagit potatoes over prefab tater tots. He helped facilitate a ban on chocolate milk. He encouraged a push for student gardens.

In Seattle, he’s leading a kitchen team that’s already committed to such goals—but faces indigestible hurdles. There’s a Byzantine web of mandates, logistics, budget restrictions—and, perhaps most challenging of all, the palates of more than 47,000 children. (Try out something too strange and new? “We’ve got kids crying in the line,” says Wendy Weyer, the department’s assistant director and a registered dietician.)

Seattle has company. Improving school lunches is hotter than Hot Pockets, with everyone up to first lady Michelle Obama promoting healthy foods, local produce and chefs in the schools. But moving from hype to reality comes down to cold business sense. If kids turn up their noses at stir-fries or plain milk or roasted potatoes, Boutin notes, the school doesn’t sell enough to make ends meet. The easy, cheap foods that make chefs and dieticians wince—the prefab chicken “drummies,” the breaded mozzarella sticks—are the popular ones that pay the bills. It’s taking time to train the kitchens to cook differently, and the kids and parents to eat differently.

That, Boutin can handle, and he’s got some high-powered help. Eric Tanaka, executive chef of Tom Douglas Restaurants, is spending all his spare cooking time with the district’s kitchen staff and students, helping develop recipes that work for both. (First up: The rice and kale, and a “super tasty” Thai larb salad, made with grains and veggies wrapped in lettuce leaves, seasoned with fresh herbs.)

The bigger hurdle is Boutin’s budget squeeze. The district has approximately $1.20 per meal to squeeze in its federally required calories, protein, fruits, vegetables and vitamins—without going over allowed allotments of fat and sodium. A recent 6-cent increase in federal reimbursements came with an accompanying 51 cents in phased-in new mandates. Extra dollars from the district would be welcomed, but it would come out of the general fund, which Boutin says is already underfunded.

“The day we have the chicken nuggets, none of us really want to serve them, but they’re what we can get at the commodity level,” says operations manager Randall Guzzardo. Serving nuggets one day—with freshly made dipping sauce, at least—saves enough money to do other things better, Guzzardo says. Exhibit A: altering the chili recipe from one heavy on prefab beef crumbles and dehydrated additives into a vegetarian version using local beans, fresh onions, garlic, cilantro and cumin. The revamped real-food version, simmering in 72-gallon vats, costs an extra 10 to 15 cents per serving more—but it’s both healthy and hugely popular, a holy grail combination for the central kitchen.

That local and seasonal produce? lt’s hard for small farmers to grow it in the reliable quantities the district needs in order to comply with federal paperwork and, more significantly, to work on district timetables and budgets. Still, the central kitchen is celebrating successes like the 17,500 organic Cripps Pink apples that arrived in January from a local farm, priced “just a skootch more” than industrial growers. An equally big bonus: The apples were hand-size, perfect for elementary kids.

“When I serve plums, I’m probably losing money that day,” Guzzardo says. But: “There are so many kids [for whom] this is their only balanced meal of the day. It’s their only chance to get a piece of fresh fruit.”

Boutin and his team are hoping to introduce more kid-centered recipes. They’re encouraging more local farmers to work with the lunchrooms. And they’re working on cutting salt and fat, and increasing whole grains.

It’s a challenge, but they feel they’re on a roll—because their rolls are mixed, proofed and baked from scratch daily, with  33 percent whole-wheat flour.

Bellevue's University Bookstore to Close, but the East Side Keeps Its Edge

Bellevue's University Bookstore to Close, but the East Side Keeps Its Edge

Bellevue is in many ways more “urban” than Seattle now—certainly, it’s racially more diverse, which is complete flip from the white-bread suburbs of the ‘60s and ‘70s
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Berger supervising a photo shoot of Bill Gates and Brian "The Boz" Bosworth in 1988

The news that the University Bookstore is closing its downtown Bellevue location next month is hardly big news. Bookstores have had to close, move and adjust to changes in the book biz. Elliott Bay relocated from Pioneer Square and now thrives on Capitol Hill. Amazon—blamed for driving many small independents out of business—has opened a dead-tree bookshop in University Village and another in Portland. Change happens.

Still, the news spurred memories of the not-so-distant past when the U-Bookstore’s move to Bellevue in the early ‘80s was part of a wave of urbanization—you could call it the “Seattleization”—of the Eastside suburbs. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Bellevue became of the focus of what became known as “Edge City” city building. Skyscrapers popped up, much to the surprise of Seattleites who looked east and saw high rises. Between them and the Cascades.

There were other signals. Microsoft moved to Bellevue in 1979, before settling in Redmond, and became the vanguard of the Silicon Forest. In 1976, Starbucks opened its first outlet in Bellevue, and today the oldest Starbucks in Bellevue sits in a strip mall across from Bellevue Square on NE 8th and just around the corner from the U-Bookstore. Crossroads shopping center revamped as a kind of suburban mall-meets-Pike Place Market with a newsstand, bookstore, public chessboard, and a catalyst for social services. The demand for “third places” in the suburbs—often criticized as a desert of “no place” cul de sacs—was growing.

That growth was nurtured by other developments. In 1976, Bellevue got its own daily newspaper, the Journal-American, so Starbucks goers had first-rate local news and columns to read over their lattes each morning. In the late ‘80s, the statewide magazine I worked for, Washington, which had launched in Bellevue in the mid-80s, did a cover story on the fact that two major national celebrities were based on the Eastside: Bill Gates and Brian “The Boz” Bosworth. One seemed to reflect a new braininess in the ‘burbs, the other a kind of brazen, bleached Seahawks celebrity whose attitude suggested an in-your-face approach far different from quiet good guys suburban dads like Steve Largent. It seemed like the Eastside was an Edge City gaining some edginess.

In 1990, Seattle Weekly launched a sister paper on the Eastside. I was the editor and publisher and we arrived because we saw the changes of the ‘70s and ‘80s—the spread of cafes, the yearning for arts, the demand for urban amenities and services—increasing. An essential part of that was reflected in moves by chains like University Bookstore were a sign that a new kind “psychographics” was emerging, a population that wanted something more than split-level, bedroom community isolation. A population of readers, for one thing, that didn’t want to have to cross a bridge for culture, or good coffee.

The trend has been a steady, prosperous for Bellevue and the Eastside. Bellevue is in many ways more “urban” than Seattle now—certainly, it’s racially more diverse, which is complete flip from the white-bread suburbs of the ‘60s and ‘70s. It is now a majority minority city—the largest in the state!

Bellevue used to be Ronald Reagan country, but has been shifting “blue” politically since the early ‘90s. Light rail is coming, the cranes are still building, and the Edge City is now a big city in its own right. The seeds for that vision were planted long before the University Bookstore came to downtown Bellevue to serve hungry minds.

But the U-Bookstore’s move to Bellevue in the ‘80s was like an indicator species signaling to Seattleites and Eastsiders that the Puget Sound ecosystem was shifting. And boy, have they.