Maureen Harkcom: Parents need to demand quality meals be brought back into schools


Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with ”M&M,” as I will refer to Margaret Garrett and Meredith Arseneau of Educational Service District 113 (ESD 113) up in Tumwater.

Garrett is the Farm to School regional coordinator and Arseneau is the child nutrition mentor. I have several personal reasons for why I wanted to meet with them.

Number one, I spent about 30 years in education, and some of the things I saw while teaching and that I see now when talking to students and their parents disturb me.

Number two, I was raised by a mother who was a good cook and made everything from scratch. We raised and butchered our own meats (beef, pork, lamb and poultry) and canned and froze vegetables and fruits from our garden. We purchased by the case from growers.

Number three, I like good food and raised my four sons the same way.

Number four, I have enough nutrition training (and I think common sense) to be concerned with what I see people, including families and students, eating.

Number five, I like to cook from scratch and feed people good, wholesome food, not fancy, but quality, and I know that is the best, most healthy way to eat.

Number six, as an agriculturalist and president of Lewis County Farm Bureau, I feel it is important to support local Lewis County and Washington state farmers and ranchers and to get local, healthy food to people.

So, why my interest in talking to M&M? The Farm to School program.

When I was in school, I remember the kitchen staff prepared all our lunches (we didn’t get breakfasts way back then) in the school kitchen. Today, school districts have gone to what is referred to as “heat and serve” menus and food purchased through a limited few distributors. They are quick and easy and meet all the nutritional requirements set by the government.

But are they appetizing and appealing?

And, more importantly, are they healthy?

I would venture to say no on all criteria. But there is a solution for getting better quality food that is fresher and more nutritious, and it is a “movement” that is working its way around the country called Farm to School. What is this program? Where did it come from? How do schools take advantage of it?

M&M said the program started in Vermont in the early 2000s. Now, there is an institute with a vision and mission that will provide training for a team from a school district. That team consists of a food service worker, school administrator, teacher and a community member. They will receive training to help with the transition from “heat and serve” to Farm to School. Costs are different. There is a shortage of trained labor (people who know how to cook from scratch). Additional equipment is needed to prepare the meals. It requires more time.

ESD 113 will do some of the legwork to connect schools with farms and help source ingredients from those farms as well as some of the prepared foods such as bread and yogurt. They offer training with chefs so schools can learn techniques of preparing meals on the scale they need to, gather recipes, and get help to step out and tackle the challenge of preparing quality, appealing, nutritious meals for students. 

The Washington state Department of Agriculture (WSDA) offers grants to school districts that want to explore moving to scratch cooking without committing a large amount of money. WSDA provides nutrition education. Twenty-five percent of the grant can be spent on nonfood costs such as equipment, transportation and containers for holding foods. The Office of the Superintendent of Instruction (OSPI) also has grant money to purchase food and provide it to schools at no cost, along with culinary training on how to use the various foods that are produced locally. 

Why the surge in interest and supporting programs? COVID-19 ramped things up as schools were tasked with providing meals and transporting them to students’ homes, and they had difficulty finding and getting foodstuffs to work with.

Farm to School is seen as a way to bring a community together. Local farmers will gain the support of their community, and schools will have local, fresh products rather than food sourced in foreign countries, processed and then shipped to schools to be heated or kept chilled and served.

Meal programs are “participation based,” meaning that the funding provided to a district is determined by how many students use the program. So, if a school kitchen produces food the kids will actually eat, the “participation” will increase and their funding will increase to meet that need.

ESD 113 serves 17 districts in Grays Harbor, Lewis (at this time only Adna, Boistfort, Mossyrock and White Pass use the Farm to School program at some level), Mason, Pacific and Thurston counties. The Farm to School program has been working under the grants, but in July it will become a “fee for service” program where the districts will have to pay for the training, etc., that the ESD will provide, including a mentor and a Farm to School coordinator.

The Legislature is looking at “universal feeding,” which means that if the district qualifies (the federal government wants to drop the qualification level to 25% free or reduced-price meals) then all students would be fed at no cost to the students or their families.

Bottom line to M&M is that Farm to School is about making food important. Food is a basic need. If we want kids to learn, they need to be healthy, which means they need to eat healthy. Currently, there are only three, maybe four, schools in Lewis County using the Farm to School program. Why? Parents need to talk to their school boards and district administrators about getting quality meals back into schools. Parents need to demand fresher, more healthy meals that are appealing so students will eat them and not just deposit their tray into the garbage can.

It seems the Lewis County Health Department is different from most counties and how they rate kitchens on different levels based on their equipment, etc.

For example, Level 3 has the ability to cook and serve, while Level 4 has the ability to cook, cool and refrigerate, and use another day. That is where school districts may need the help from the grants to get the additional equipment they no longer have since going to “heat and serve” meals.

My next interview and article will be with Julia Ridgefield, Boistfort School District’s “one-man show” kitchen staff.


Maureen Harkcom is president of the Lewis County Farm Bureau. She can be reached at