Bellingham Schools Creates Healthy Lunch Menus


Bellingham schools have introduced a breakfast program designed to get children to eat healthier food first thing each day instead of making nutrition just an afterthought.

At a National School Lunch Week webinar, experts shared food service trends and resources. One noteworthy trend included using automated phone calls to inform participants about new menu items.

Good Food Promise

School meals are an integral component of students’ educational experience, yet some remain mistrustful of school meal programs. To combat this stigma, the Bellingham Schools District made its Good Food Promise: to offer food made from scratch using local ingredients while including food education in meal programs. They achieved this by building a state-of-the-art central kitchen equipped with state-of-the-art appliances.

The new kitchen also allows for greater creativity when designing menus. A summer breakfast menu might feature rainbow rolls (rice paper with fresh fruit, mint, and rose agave), miso oatmeal, and a lox bowl for breakfast; for dinner options try jackfruit avocado toast, vegetable sushi, or tofu “fish” filet as main course items.

Additionally, the district works hard to create excitement and mystery around special menu items by sending “robo calls” with clues as to their menu; using social media as a forum to post pictures of these offerings; as well as engaging local farmers, ranchers, and producers with local ingredients in an effort to encourage community support of its school lunch program.

Bellingham School District places special emphasis on social justice and equity within their cafeteria, to ensure every student can access nutritious meals regardless of their ability to pay. As part of this goal, they never turn away students due to an inability to pay; their Hunger-Free Students Bill of Rights allows this.

Parents and guardians can quickly monitor their student’s account balances by signing into MealTime Online and monitoring their account balances, making deposits online, or reviewing purchase history. Families eligible for free or reduced-price meals can apply every October by following this link and continuing to eat at their current level until a determination has been made; meals made from healthy, high-quality ingredients served in an inviting setting to help motivate kids to eat healthily while expanding their understanding of global issues.

Locally Sourced Meats

Food is an integral part of life for anyone, particularly students. Bellingham schools are making great strides toward changing the stigma surrounding school lunches with their Good Food Promise initiative, offering more locally grown foods and offering educational opportunities about nutrition along the way. Their new central kitchen, which went live last year, has assisted in this effort by providing higher-quality ingredients that offer greater culinary options for the students.

The district collaborates with local chefs and farmers to add variety and excitement to its cafeteria. Anticipation for what may come on the menu can be increased with “robo calls” sent out to parents with information on special menu items; feedback via Twitter and Facebook also receives positive reactions from the community.

One example was a chickpea masala featured on the USDA’s website and enjoyed by students. Another dish featured housemade maple chicken breakfast sausage, egg, cheese, and sunflower seed gremolata for an extremely popular Standard biscuit breakfast sandwich that also came with an offering of fruit for added vegetables in their diets.

District residents also take advantage of local coffee roasters to provide an array of baked goods and beverages, including lemon olive oil cake with its moist texture and citrus-zesty flavor. A standard pancake breakfast features housemade biscuits, eggs, cheese, and pancakes made from organic sourdough flour – complete with housemade biscuits made by them as well.

The District offers free breakfast and lunch to all its students, with additional revenue sources such as grants, the Juul settlement agreement, Medicaid reimbursement, and safety net dollars helping generate revenue for the district. Baker stated that no student would ever be denied food due to an inability to pay; however, there may be instances in which students charge meals back when their meal accounts become negative balances.

Sodexo’s menus adhere to USDA nutrition guidelines, providing all children in classrooms with access to fresh fruits, vegetables, and non-fat or low-fat milk for maximum growth and performance.

Locally Grown Vegetables and Fruits

Many have heard from their grandmothers, mothers, or doctors the importance of eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, yet many remain unaware that buying from local farmers rather than supermarkets may be preferable for optimal nutrition and flavor. Local produce loses less nutrients during transportation while being fresher meaning more nutrition and flavor than food that has traveled over long distances to arrive in your local store.

Bellingham schools have begun serving more locally sourced foods since the start of this year, using their newly opened central kitchen to produce 4,500 meals each day. They have also expanded their Good Food Promise initiative – which encourages schools to serve wholesome, local foods – by expanding the Good Food Promise initiative.

As well as sourcing local meats and dairy, the district works with farms to help produce its own produce. They have even set up an apiary network to source high-quality local honey for consumption.

The district’s goal is not only to increase local food consumption but also to educate students on its environmental benefits. Executive chef Patrick Durgan has championed these efforts since their introduction.

Chefs from across the country have shared their ideas and expertise through workshops. A recent webinar featured representatives from the Arizona Department of Education and Bellingham Public School in Washington discussing strategies and success stories related to standard recipes that incorporated cultural food preferences as well as locally grown produce.

District officials are providing support to local farmers through food service accounts by purchasing goods directly from them – this includes bulk milk from Edaleen Dairy, bread from Avenue Bread, and broth from Cauldron Broths. Furthermore, they work with several CSAs that offer weekly boxes of organic fruits and veggies at competitive rates.

As part of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the district was able to offer free lunches for all students in its 22 schools through Community Eligibility Provision; however, funding for it has since dried up and left students with fewer options.

Healthy Choices

The district employs its budget carefully in order to create a nutritious menu. For instance, during the COVID-19 pandemic, it used federal relief dollars for free lunches at all 22 schools, but after these funds ran out the district needed to reallocate resources accordingly and now provides free lunches at 13 of its schools through Community Eligibility Provision while students at other schools may still purchase meals as desired.

food service staff have implemented several marketing tools to encourage school community members to sample the new menu options, including sending out a weekly email newsletter with recipes and menu items as well as running social media campaigns featuring pictures of children eating school lunch. Sometimes they even make robocalls directly into students’ homes with subtle hints about something special happening or a special dish they are planning.

Food and nutrition professionals collaborate to design meal plans that comply with USDA nutritional standards so that each student receives sufficient calories, proteins, carbs, fats, and nutrients necessary for learning. This team includes a culinary instructor for training both students and faculty in the kitchen as well as registered dietitians who assist with planning.

Cooking from scratch can be daunting, but Spreng and her staff take great joy in seeing the results of their efforts pay off. Their food tastes delicious and she has noticed that children seem drawn more towards healthy options.

This program helps school food professionals learn better ways to provide options through workshops, learning courses, and assessments. In addition, The Chef Ann Foundation also offers one-time systems assistance grants; to qualify, districts must demonstrate commitment towards adopting an approach focused on scratch cooking and fresh whole food, with support from their district leadership.

For more information, visit Get Schools Cooking or speak to your school food service director. If your child qualifies for free or reduced-price meals, a new application must be submitted annually by October in order to continue receiving these benefits – there will be a link in MealTime Online that allows parents access to this form.