Fresher food being made in Bellingham School District

BELLINGHAM, Wash. -  Serving 4,000 meals a day is no easy task. In years past, school lunch just used to be heating up food that was processed and not necessarily good for you. But in Bellingham, the school district is doing something different: making meals from scratch, from food that's local and fresher.

Part of the Bellingham School District’s Good Food Promise says "real food, made with love."

When you have something brand new, the excitement can be hard to contain sometimes. For the district’s  executive chef Patrick Durgan, a brand new, state-of-the-art central kitchen is a bit of a learning curve, too.

“Really what we’re doing now is kind of getting our training wheels under us,” said Durgan. “The community is embracing what we’re doing. Our staff is excited about what`s happening. And we’re giving them something that we’re proud to serve to our kids.”

The Bellingham School District's central kitchen just opened up in the beginning of the year. And while Durgan and his staff are getting used to everything, the possibilities are endless.

“This is a steam-jacketed kettle, 130 gallons. So, we can do a lot of our soup production, our cream sauces without worrying about scalding them,” said Durgan.

Or how about a multi-function cooker that can make 300 pounds of dry pasta in two hours?

“It cooks here, the basket lifts up, dumps it into a shock tank and that brings the temperature right down to about 85-90% doneness, and then we can send that product out to our schools. And all they have to do is put it into a steamer for three or four minutes ... fresh pasta, on site, ready to go,” said Durgan.

Storage is also important for the central kitchen.

“We have an easy connection to our chilled prep room. It’s 55 degrees. These are our three cart blast chillers so we can take a soup or a stew from 160-plus degrees, down to about 40 degrees in almost two hours,” said Durgan.

And while we can go on and on about the kitchen, the bigger picture is that this all about a promise: the Bellingham Good Food Promise.

“One of the things that we believe is that it’s important for every kid to be fed real food, made with love every single day,” said Jessica Sankey, director of wellness for the Bellingham School District.

According to Sankey, back in 2009, the district took a good hard look at what they were serving their kids.

“We were moving to more processed foods. We were able to buy large boxes of chicken nuggets and we open them up, warm them up and then send them out to schools,” said Sankey.

After that  realization, the district changed to serving food with purpose.

In 2016, the promise was made, preparing and serving food that’s minimally processed, limiting salt and sugar and avoiding artificial colors, flavors and additives.

“We prioritize whole foods. We prioritize scratch cooking. We absolutely believe in local foods and sustainably grown foods,” said Sankey.

Durgan agrees. The plan is for the central kitchen to serve nine schools, said Durgan.

“We start here at about six in the morning, we’re getting ready for our ship-out, which happens at about 8:45 and 9:15,” he said.

Right now, they serve about three schools. But do the kids even notice fresher food? Students at Sehome High School think so.

“The food’s pretty good. I like the food. It’s gotten better since freshman year," said student Junior Arreola.

“I really liked how it appears more fresher, this year especially,” said student Kyle Aspiras.

The district says this food revolution is just getting started. In fact, the menu for next year is already being planned out.

Believe it or not, it includes Lummi Island wild salmon cake with grain pilaf, not your ordinary school meal.

It’s ambitious, says Durgan, but that’s OK. After all, a promise needs to be kept.

“What we want to do is to be able to give them that opportunity to make them feel like they’re making choices. And they’re making good choices,” said Durgan.

The new central kitchen was funded by two bonds passed, one in 2013 and one in 2018, as well as a million-dollar grant from the Whatcom Community Foundation. The district is hoping more local farmers will want to participate in what the district is doing.