Don't laugh, but if you haven't had a lunch in the Bend-La Pine School's cafeterias, you're missing out on a wonderful foodie experience.
This is not your tater tots and mystery meat lunchtime meal.
First Lady Michelle Obama has sent congratulation letters to all the local school district's elementary schools for winning the Healthier United States School Challenge Award, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This is no small feat; our school district went up against not just other school districts in the state but food programs across the country.
“We're so excited; we put in for this grant a while ago, and we heard that five of our elementary schools got gold awards, five got silver awards and seven got the bronze award,” said Katrina Wiest, the district nutrition services wellness specialist.
If Wiest's name sounds familiar, it could be because she's a big part of the foodie movement in Central Oregon, at the school level and throughout the community.
Wiest has been the Bend Farmers Market manager for the past dozen years. She came into the school district's nutrition program 10 years ago, and since then much has changed.
“We got rid of the fryers seven years ago,” Wiest said. “Remember when all the school cafeteria food was fried? And when everything that was served was white food, like white rice and white bread? Now we have whole grain breads and brown rice.”
When she's not figuring out how to bring healthier and local meals to our students, Wiest can be seen in her comfortable Deschutes River Woods home kitchen doing lots of canning. Her cupboards are full of canned peaches, tomato sauce, beets, pickles, preserves and a host of other summer fruits and vegetables.
“I tell my kids, we can't open the canned peaches until the first snowflake falls,” said Wiest with a wink.
An Oregon State University graduate who majored in food and nutrition, Wiest says bringing fresh fruits and vegetables to our community is a passion. Having grown up on a farm, she knows the value of fresh food.
“We lived on a farm, so I learned cooking and baking from my mother and grandmother. We lived 30 miles from any town, so we always had to depend on our farm for food,” said Wiest. “I tell students, I never had a store-bought potato chip till I was 13 years old; we made everything at home.”
It was Wiest's mission to bring as much fresh, local food onto the cafeteria's tables as possible. When you serve 16,000 meals five times a week in the district's cafeterias, you have to know how to order and manage the food, and make it delicious.
“In 2010, the federal government changed its dietary guidelines, and that started the ball rolling. Before that, the meal patterns had not changed in 20 years,” said Wiest from her home kitchen in Bend. “We saw obesity rates climbing among children. If you track the CDC rates of childhood obesity from 1995 through 2012, it's alarming. I think it's our sedentary lifestyle — our kids are on computers, electronics and gaming. On top of all that, many PE programs have been cut or reduced.”
Wiest decided about eight years ago to start a farms-to-school program in the school district. Many naysayers said it couldn't be done, not with the tight food budget that was allocated. Wiest admits she likes a challenge. So with little encouragement, Wiest started making phone calls to farmers.
“I called Kimberly Orchards, now Thomas Orchards, and asked if they could provide our school district with 3,500 boxes of apples during the year,” recalled Wiest. “They were so happy; this is a fifth generation farm here in Oregon, and they were struggling to keep the farm afloat, and then I asked for orders of produce, and it's been a great relationship ever since.”
Wiest said that three years later, the district had farm-to-school meals every school day.
“People thought it was cutting edge, and then they wanted to know if farm-to-school could be done statewide. And in 2007, the legislature passed a bill for (the) Oregon Education (Department) and Oregon Agriculture (Department) to start this throughout the state,” explained Wiest.
Since her first relationship with Thomas Orchards, Wiest has cultivated dozens of other relationships with farms and ranchers.
“Let's see, we have Happy Harvest Farm, which provides us with our fresh veggies, like broccoli, cauliflower and some fruits like melons. In the beginning of the school year, we even had peaches, plums and pluots,” said Wiest, as she cut up some fresh vegetables from the farmers market for her own chicken soup. “Then we also get Painted Hills Natural Beef; we get 10,000 pounds of beef, three times a year. This allows us to make our own taco meat, sloppy Joes, chili, spaghetti; oh, it's wonderful. We have an excellent school chef in Tracy Wilson.”
Wiest also is proud of her school district bakers, who use local flour from Camas Country Mills, which sends nearly 49,000 pounds of fresh flour to Bend-La Pine. The bakers who arrive at 3:30 a.m. use the flour to make fresh cinnamon rolls, pizza crust, bread and bagels for the day.
“It's all baked from scratch, and the fresh aroma in the morning is unbelievable,” said Wiest.
But it doesn't stop there. While she cultivated her relationships with farmers and ranchers, Wiest decided to get fishermen in on the program.
“Well yes, we now have a boats-to-school program,” said Wiest. “This allows us to serve up shrimp and Dover sole.”
With her usual moxie, Wiest called over to Astoria and asked various fish companies what they could supply the school district with and at what cost. The Borenstein Seafood Co. came in with shrimp and fish at a price point the district could afford.
“So first came the fresh shrimp, and we made shrimp fettuccine and shrimp chowder, shrimp cocktails, shrimp salad, and we even made some sushi with the shrimp. For many in our school district, this was a real treat because many families can't afford shrimp in their own budgets,” said Wiest. “Then we got the boatload of sole, and our chef, Tracie Wilson, made a soy-ginger marinade for the sole with jasmine rice, and we made blackened sole with black beans and rice. We had fish tacos with fresh salsa, and let me tell you, this was so delicious. This could give Parrilla Grill a ride. We've had fresh salmon, crab and tuna loins — it's truly gourmet dining here in the school cafeterias.”
Wiest has also partnered with Mountain View High School's Future Farmers of America group, which is raising 50 hogs for the school district's food program.
“We received a grant for $67,000 from Worthy Farms, and I figure we can make a lot of meals out of 50 hogs, once it's processed,” said Wiest. “I'd really like to see us raise a local herd of cattle on state lands for Oregon school meals.”
Wiest looks around her cozy home kitchen, and recalls that at her grandmother's funeral, one of the things that was said in a eulogy was that her meals touched everyone in the community.
“That was really true; whenever someone passed or was ill or was born, my grandmother would send over a meal, and her meals touched so many lives,” said Wiest wistfully. “I hope someday someone says that about me. Cooking is my passion, and I love my jobs.”
What are the three ingredients you'll always find in your home kitchen cupboard or refrigerator?
Butter, flour and eggs. We once had 19 chickens in the chicken coop in the backyard, but we're down to three chickens now.
Favorite home meals you like to prepare?
I love making things from scratch, using local fresh ingredients. Anything that is smoked or barbecued with fresh vegetables and fruit.
What is your favorite home appliance in your kitchen?
It's a toss-up between my refrigerator with the freezer on the bottom and my electric stove. And I did just get my KitchenAid stand mixer recently. I never had one before, and I love it.
What is your favorite hand tool/cooking utensil in your home kitchen?
Spatula, because you can use it to get the very last of everything in a bowl!
What is your spice of choice?
Pepper. There are so many to choose from now, and each has its own personality.
What chefs do you admire most?
Julia Child and my professors from the Oregon State University nutrition department.
Do you have a favorite cooking memory? Or afavorite memorable meal you prepared?
The lunch ladies at Barney Elementary School in Walla Walla, Wash., who wore starched dress uniforms with stockings and black lace-up shoes. They would cook homemade chili and cinnamon rolls on Fridays for school lunch. I can still remember the smell of those cinnamon rolls baking. (Our family farm was outside of Walla Walla.)
Favorite room you like to eat your meals in?
In our kitchen, because I inherited my grandmother's table, and it's very special. We have three other leaves for it, so we can have a big Thanksgiving meal here. When my grandmother could no longer walk well, my grandfather put wheels on one of the wooden dining chairs that go with the table, and I remember my grandmother being able to wheel around the kitchen and still cook and bake. This chair with wheels is still part of the dining room set.
Does your family have a regular dinner or meal together?
We try to, but with two kids in sports it's hard to sit and have a nightly meal. If we go to my parents' home, then yes we all sit together for a meal.
Best meal you've ever eaten in your life?
School lunch! I think sitting down with the students when they're eating their school lunch and talk about their meal and where it came from.
I also remember sitting down at the big grown-up table at my great aunt's home, and she set out the best china and crystal and silverware for an Easter dinner. I can still remember how special that felt to me, as a young girl. My great aunt also prepared every dish in a wood-fired oven for that meal.
Guilty food pleasure?
BUTTER. You can saute with it; you must bake with it, and it's so good on toast. You can do everything with butter. I grew up on a farm, so none of this low-fat stuff. Real butter.
What is your ideal dream home kitchen?
I have loved all my kitchens. Only thing missing here in my kitchen is a pantry and a wood-fired oven.
What do you like to do outside of the kitchen?
Spend time watching my kids in sports and taking long walks and cruising the wine aisles.
If you couldn't be a nutritionist or in the food industry, what profession would you have chosen?
A doctor or a nurse; I like to help people be well.
Favorite food quote or philosophy you often repeat to yourself?
Butter is better! I also have a plaque in my kitchen that reads: “Life is what you bake of it!”
Editor's note: “In the kitchen with ...” features people in the local culinary scene at home in their own kitchens. To suggest someone to profile, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.