A four-year-old carrying an adult-size food tray is a funny thing. It looks like a construction worker hauling a sheet of dry-wall from one end of the house to the other. It takes concentration and focus. The pre-K students at West Seattle Montessori have been taught to carry their trays directly in front of them, and to look at the tray and the ground as they slowly walk back to their classroom where they will eat. In this way, they spend at least a minute or two, as they walk, tray out on extended arms like a ring-bearer, smelling and looking closely at the plate of food that they just learned about thanks to the Fresh Lunch program. It’s an intimate food moment, really.

These are the kinds of food connections that can shape young people’s eating habits. The West Seattle students eat a variety of dishes, from vegetable lasagna to sweet-potato quesadillas. Two mothers volunteer with the school’s Fresh Lunch program, dishing out the meals two days a week. Parents sign up for the voluntary program (otherwise, students bring their own lunches from home), and it costs $3.75 per meal for the younger students and $4 per meal for the older kids (West Seattle goes up to 8th grade).

Deb, one of the mothers who volunteers for Fresh Lunch and serves the meals every Tuesday, is working her second year with the program. Her son is in the first grade. As she dishes out a scoop of egg fried rice with bok choy and Natalia, the other volunteer and mother of first and second graders, places cantaloupe chunks on their plates, Deb tells the students about the food: protein from the eggs, vegetable nutrients from the bok choy. She’s curious to see how the program will stick with the younger students as they get older. If they’ll have expanded and healthier palates because of the Fresh Lunch variety of dishes.

The big-picture connection with West Seattle Montessori, a relatively affluent school in the otherwise low to middle-income White Center community south of Seattle, is the organization that provides the twice-weekly Fresh Lunch program.

FareStart cooked that fried rice and chunked the cantaloupe that arrived to West Seattle earlier in the morning. FareStart is a darling of Seattle’s non-profit food security world. It has found a  sweet spot in the progressive, socially-conscious city by combining good, local food with positive, enriching job training, and it does it from a stylish kitchen and designer restaurant space in the heart of downtown. In fact, when walking past 7th Ave on Virginia St, you can look through the giant, sidewalk-level windows and see the chefs, cooks, and trainees at work.

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FareStart uses revenue generated from its lunches and weekly Guest Chef Night (local chef prepares distinctive meals), plus other sources, to fund its job training and placement programs. Disadvantaged and homeless men and women and at-risk teens work in the kitchens to receive on-the-job training and skills to help place them back in the workforce. The program, which has been operating as a non-profit since 1992, graduates over 150 students in recent years, 80% of whom move into living-wage employment. Its success has gone nationwide with the launch of Catalyst Kitchens to bring similar programming to other communities.

Recently, with the 2010 USDA’s Community Food Project (CFP) grant, FareStart has moved further down the food security chain, developing “Serving Farm Fresh to City Schools” program. That’s how a four-year-old ended up with a plate of egg-fried rice and bok choy produced in FareStart’s kitchen by FareStart staff and trainees. The goal is to create a sustainable market that supports local farmers (45% of the school lunch food is sourced from Washington farms) and improves school lunch nutrition for 250,000 children.

It’s not easy going from pizza and chicken nuggets to sweet-potato quesadillas and three-bean quinoa chili. Kids are picky eaters. But they are also voracious learners so with each meal comes overt (lessons in the classroom) and subtle (“Ooh, doesn’t that quesadilla look good?” from the volunteer dishing out the food) prompts toward understanding the benefits and appeal of healthy, local food.

Another one of the Holy Grails in the food security quest is to bring state institutions and day-to-day large scale meal providers like school districts under the same tent as local producers and local-food distribution networks. FareStart has a strong foundation upon which to make this leap. As seen in New Mexico with the effort made by Don Bustos’ American Friends Service Committee, solidifying the connection between local farms and school institutions gives a powerful voice to food security ideals. Once schools are relying on local food producers, both the farmers and the children’s sustainability are more secure. Who can argue with feeding our children right? 

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