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The Farm-to-Schools Movement: Riverdale lunches make the grade

by: Vern Uyetake, Four Seasons Flavor founder Kathy Block-Brown and chef Absalon Bittner get ready for the lunch period rush at Riverdale High School.

The mission of Riverdale School District is to provide an exceptional education. One of their core values is that schooling is life; it is not simply preparation for life. Students are expected to reach their academic potential while developing intellectual curiosity, a love of learning and a strong sense of purpose.

You can't do that on an empty stomach.

Three years ago, Riverdale High School Principal Sue Ann Higgens wanted to make a change in their food service program.

'Our school's CUP (conditional use permit) states that we must have a closed campus,' said Jody Haagenson, district communications director. 'We had a kitchen but no system to really prepare anything fresh. So foods were either fried or microwaved (by our food service contractor). We wanted to make a change to improve the quality and nutritional value of what we offered for lunch.'

School officials looked at many options, including contracting with other school districts, and through a parent, connected with Four Seasons Flavor, a local catering company dedicated to providing healthy, nutritious food prepared with in-season products locally grown with sustainable practices.

Four Seasons Flavor (FSF) is the enterprise of Kathy Block-Brown. It's her second career - following her 22-year stint in teaching and education administration. Food has always been a passion for Block-Brown and her sister encouraged her to find a new career somehow involved with food.

Block-Brown attended the Le Cordon Bleu program at Western Culinary Institute and graduated at the top of her class. She worked as a sous chef and staff instructor at In Good Taste cooking school in Portland before launching Four Seasons Flavor in 2005.

Block-Brown's intention for the business was to provide catering and private chef services; the school lunch program was a natural evolution. She is committed to preparing time-saving meals using natural meats and produce. All meats used in her cooking are free from hormones and antibiotics. Fish is selected from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch safe list. During the growing season, produce is purchased directly from the farmer as much as possible.

FSF has been providing from-scratch breakfast, snacks and lunches for Riverdale elementary and high school students since April 2007. The program started with 50 students but mushroomed within three days to serving 150.

But the rest of the story is not as they say, history. Block-Brown maintains a dialogue with students and administrators to make sure she is providing what they want to eat and educates them about foods, nutrition and sustainability and even, occasionally, helps out with a little math or statistics.

A fourth grade teacher asked Block-Brown if she would assist her class with an applied math project. The class wanted to survey the elementary students regarding their preferences of FSF's meals.

'The students prepared a survey of what we served and devised a scale to rate the responses,' said Block-Brown. 'They analysed the data, drew a pictograph and then presented the information to the principal and me. It was a fabulous report containing statements, overviews. The presentation gave information about what the students liked that we served and also gave ideas for future menus.'

From that information, Block-Brown created a menu to be tasted over two lunch periods. The favorites from that tasting appeared on the next week's menu.

'It's important that we keep on top of what the students want to eat,' she said.

The Senior Seminar class, which teaches a variety of college preparatory skills, such as how to change a tire and sew on a button, now also includes a cooking section. Seniors are required to design a menu within a budget, and show their work through a video presentation, as well as compile a college cookbook of recipes.

Block-Brown often posts a question of the week and holds contests to build awareness about food issues or new cuisines she introduces. Fridays are 'Regions and Season' cuisine; recently Southeast Asian cuisine was the choice featuring Thai curry and salad rolls. The foods were received with rave reviews.

'The kids loved the curry and salad rolls,' said Haagenson. 'They want them back on the menu right away.'

Riverdale students choose from a variety of options ranging in price fro $1.50 to $4 per item. Breakfast might include house-made muffins, yogurt parfait with house-made granola and juices. Lunch includes a choice of two soups, sandwich and salad options, two different entrees, fresh fruit, Kettle Chips, house-made cookies and beverages free from added sugar. House-made hummus is a big hit with the students. Other favorites include scalloped potatoes, chicken noodle soup and almond butter sandwiches.

Those with lactose or gluten intolerances and other sensitivities are easily accommodated; and vegetarian dishes are offered each day.

Has the improved nutrition made a difference on the students' academic performance?

'We have pretty motivated students already,' said principal Sue Ann Higgens. 'And we don't have any data to substantiate that, but we are seeing more alert students after lunch. They don't seem to have that sugar high and low syndrome. This food sustains them all day.'

School officials are also seeing a reduction in trash generated from lunch wrappings.

'We are proud of making available the good pattern of eating fresh foods. We've seen students lean down by eating more healthfully, too.'

'A big benefit came from saying goodbye to the fryer,' said Block-Brown. 'The kids have come to believe they can live without a daily dose of French fries.'

And word about Riverdale's tasty lunches has spread. Monday FSF will serve lunch to 145 students at Our Lady of the Lake parochial school.

It was Block-Brown's commitment to the program and high quality food product that was the deciding factor for Our Lady of the Lake to contract with FSF, according to parent Lisa McBee.

An unseen benefit of the arrangement is that FSF's online ordering system will lighten the work load of at least one staff position at OLL.

'Kathy (administrative worker) will be freed up to do more important duties than tally lunch counts,' said McBee.

McBee estimates that the program will cost the same as what she spent for her two daughters under OLL's previous three-day-a-week hot lunch program, with greatly improved quality of food.

'The new mission statement of the parent group is 'Parents working together for excellence.' … Kathy's commitment to excellence fits with our mission,' said McBee.

'I suspect that no matter what she touches, she makes things better,' said McBee of Block-Brown. 'She seems to be constantly improving the procedures and products.'