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.

2016 Crosscut Courage Award Winners

2016 Crosscut Courage Award Winners

The 2016 Crosscut Courage Award winners don't walk away from difficult conversations and challenges
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Back row: Honorees Richard Romero, Courage in Business, and Stephen Tan and Joey Cohn, Courage in Culture. Front row: Colleen Echohawk, Courage in Public Service, and Martha Choe, The David Brewster Lifetime Achievement Award

A trailblazing public servant who has spent decades in government and philanthropy. A banker who has given immigrants a foot in the door toward citizenship. A nonprofit leader who works to better the lot of Native Americans. And a thousands-strong community group that came together to save a beloved public radio station.

What do they all have in common? When faced with the choice between dialogue and rhetoric, between engagement and flight, they chose to stay and to talk—to struggle through difficult conversations in order to make things better for all. That’s why they’ve been selected as the winners of Crosscut’s 2016 Courage Awards.

Seattle magazine is proud to partner with online news journal Crosscut (crosscut.com) in recognizing these local leaders whose personal and professional dedication is making our region more vital, equitable and inclusive.

Courage in Culture Honoree
Friends of 88.5 

Last November, Pacific Lutheran University announced it was selling local National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate KPLU-FM to the University of Washington (UW). KPLU’s newsroom would be disbanded and its jazz programming absorbed into KUOW-FM. For the leaders of the 50-year-old KPLU, it would have been easy to just fold up the microphones and send the staff to look for work elsewhere: The $7 million deal was all but done, pending approval by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

But that didn’t happen. Instead, bowing under immense community pressure, the UW granted the station’s members a moonshot chance of matching the university’s offer and buying the station themselves. They had six months to do it.

Working under the banner of Friends of 88.5, a nonprofit created in a matter of weeks out of the vestiges of KPLU’s community advisory board, supporters and station leaders—including Joey Cohn and Stephen Tan—organized rallies across the region, including a KPLU day in Tacoma. They took to the airwaves, conscripting Audie Cornish, Quincy Jones and others to make their pitch. And they organized groups of longtime donors to provide matches of as much as $500,000.

Today, KPLU is KNKX, an independent nonprofit. The station is not totally out of the woods yet: It now needs to rebuild its reserves and find enough money just to operate. But amid a sea of dismal news about the decline of journalism, the Friends of 88.5 are a life raft.

Courage in Public Service Honoree
Colleen Echohawk

Soon after accepting the post of executive director of the Chief Seattle Club two and a half years ago, Colleen Echohawk realized that the organization had to do much more to address the multiple traumas faced by American Indian and Alaska Native people in Seattle. 

These populations suffer from a whole range of ills, from poverty to addiction to homelessness. Last year, 16 native people died while living on the streets or facing housing instability. Echohawk needed resources, but she had no experience with fundraising and found the idea of approaching groups like United Way frightening.

Today, United Way is the club’s biggest funder, and the Chief Seattle Club, a presence in the city since 1970, has become a larger force in promoting public safety and solving the crisis of homelessness. The club has added weekend hours, and the staff has grown from seven to 15, including a case manager to help with housing for the 100 members it sees daily, most of whom experience chronic homelessness. 

“She has got this way of being very positive and constructive,” says Mark Putnam at All Home Seattle, the organization coordinating homeless efforts in King County. He praises Echohawk’s ability to build strong relationships while also pushing issues, including awareness of the extreme racial disparity in homeless rates.

While Echohawk loves the many ways she has seen Seattle respond to her club members’ needs, she thinks it’s particularly hard for them to face isolation and homelessness in a city whose name honors a native leader. “This city,” she says, “is losing out on incredible people.” If Echohawk has her way, that will change.

Courage in Business Honoree
Richard Romero

For many immigrants, the path to U.S. citizenship is a difficult one. To get there, they must wait in a long line in which their nationality can determine their priority. They must learn about our system of government, memorizing more than many natural-born citizens actually know. And at the end of it all, they must hand over a hefty amount of cash.

To go from holding a green card to becoming a naturalized citizen, an individual immigrant must pay a $680 filing fee. For families, the fees can add up to thousands of dollars. That’s a tall order: As many as half of King County’s 100,000 immigrants eligible for citizenship may be impoverished, according to Seattle’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs. 

Under the leadership of CEO Richard Romero, the Seattle Metropolitan Credit Union has begun helping with this final hoop via a novel partnership with the City of Seattle that provides loans to immigrants. The city’s main role is to communicate with immigrant populations about the availability of the loans. The credit union takes care of the rest.

While there’s been lots of bluster this year about building walls and turning immigrants away at our borders, Romero’s initiative honors one of our country’s core values and lends a helping hand to those seeking a better life.

Lifetime Achievement Honoree
Martha Choe

If you spotted her on the bus in the morning, with her low-key, unassuming manner and neatly parted hair, you might not guess that Martha Choe is one of the most influential people in Washington’s recent history. But Choe has been a trailblazer for both women and people of color in Washington. 

From her terms on the Seattle City Council and work in state government to her leadership in the banking sector and global influence as the chief administrative officer of the Gates Foundation, Choe has embraced a leadership style that prioritizes compromise and getting things done over popularity and easy point scoring. 

Leadership requires both “vision and reality,” Choe said in a recent talk at the Henry M. Jackson Foundation. “Leadership involves people, not just org charts and boxes. Learn, listen and understand different perspectives.”

Choe used this approach to get Asian at-risk youth off the streets by investing in community centers. She helped revive Seattle’s downtown by reopening Pine Street to cars and bringing more than 1 million square feet of retail space to downtown Seattle between 1996 and 1998. And she spent a decade overseeing the operations of large portions of the Gates Foundation—including human resources and the hiring of staff—building the philanthropic powerhouse into its present form. 

As someone who has dedicated her lifetime to public service and steady leadership, Choe exemplifies what it means to be an involved, courageous citizen of the Pacific Northwest.