WSD students, employees rave about new program offering restaurant-style, nutritious meals

Washougal district unveiled new program in 2020, sets record in September with nearly 25,000 meals served

The Washougal School District has shifted to a restaurant-style, scratch-made food preparation model to serve healthier, better-tasting meals to students and employees.

Washougal School District employee Glenda Huddleston prepares food for students and employees in 2020. (Contributed photos courtesy of the Washougal School District)

The Washougal School District’s meals are cheaper than they’ve ever been. They’re healthier, too. And, according to one Washougal School Board member, they even taste better.

“I worked at Cape Horn-Skye and Canyon Creek when my kids were going to school there, and they refused to eat the school lunches,”  Washougal School Board director Angela Hancock said during the board’s Oct. 12 meeting at Jemtegaard Middle School. “They tried them and said, ‘No way.’ But for the first time this last week, my youngest, who has been in the school system for 10 years, said, ‘I’m just going to eat the school lunches. They are so good.’ For her to say that (was eye-opening) because she’s really picky. (The students) are spreading the word about how good the food is.”

Students and employees alike are raving about the district’s new food services program, which debuted in 2020 with revamped menus featuring restaurant-style, scratch-made, nutritious options for breakfast and lunch.

The meals were free for all students during the 2020-21 school year thanks to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program.

“At the end of the day it is really about the desire to provide our students with high quality, delicious homemade meals,” superintendent Mary Templeton said in a news release. “This program builds on our efforts to achieve our mission to know, nurture and challenge all students to rise. It is important for our students to know they are loved and cared for, and we know food nourishes the body, the mind and the spirit.”

The district’s efforts seem to be working. It set a single-month record by serving close to 25,000 meals in September, sous chef Johnattan Curiel told board members during the Oct. 12 meeting.

“We’re trying to create more interest and get more buy-in from our students,” Curiel said. “We’re doing ‘fun treats’ with some of the new menu items that maybe kids haven’t seen before to get them more acclimated to our meals. We have ‘guest servers’ this week — each day we’re trying to have one of the principals serve the meals. We’re (generating) some social-media buzz at the same time to create some buy-in with the community as well.”

In previous years, the district’s chefs created meals from previously frozen food. Now they prepare food at the district’s “central kitchen” in Gause Elementary School with fresher, better quality ingredients.

The district’s lunch menu for October includes chicken quesadillas, ranch chicken burgers, pork verde, pepperoni bowtie pasta salad, chicken stroganoff, sweet and sour chicken tenders, and biscuits and gravy. Its breakfast offerings include sausage and cheese English muffin sandwiches, homemade waffles, bagels, muffins and yogurt.

“We’re starting to develop and work closely with some local farms in the area, trying to get a partnership to get their produce into our schools and to our students,” Curiel said. “Other districts are now interested in what we’re doing and trying to replicate it.”

In early 2020, Templeton, business manager Kris Grindy and career and technical education director Margaret Rice began researching schools across the United States that were implementing fresher, healthier menu options. Grindy and Rice then met with a local chef to conduct a needs analysis and survey of school kitchens.

“The main goal was to create a transition plan based on his findings and help us work through this complex transition, which included hiring an executive chef supervisor to lead our own culinary staff,” Rice said in the news release.

The district hired Chris Youngren to lead its new culinary services team in July 2020. She helped to transition the food services program to adopt a take-out delivery model, which provided parents with packaged meals in reheatable containers and heating instructions.

The district promoted Curiel to lead the department after Youngren resigned in January 2021.

“It’s been a great adventure,” he said during the Oct. 12 meeting. “It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been really rewarding so far.”

Rice told board members that she’s noticed that more employees are ordering the meals as well. The district provides meals for staff members at a cost of $2.70 for breakfast and $4.75 for lunch.

“If we don’t want it, why would we serve it to our students? That’s kind of the premise of this,” Rice said. “We want to be serving meals that we would be serving our own family, that we would want to eat, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Board member Donna Sinclair expressed her desire to see more vegetarian options on the menus, but supported the new food services program as a whole.

“When my children were young, I became a single mother and was unable to continue packing their lunches because I couldn’t afford it,” Sinclair said. “But the school lunches were terrible, and I always felt bad about that. So I’m really pleased that we’re providing good, healthy, tasty lunches for kids. To be here when this shift happens is really exciting to me.”