The Washington State Nutrition Association convention was back in Spokane at the end of July, offering a smorgasbord of food for thought that catered to 500-plus educators from around the state.
The main ballroom at the Spokane Convention Center was filled with sights and smells of foods, including carrots and calzones, as vendors hoped to entice school officials into a sale.
However, the main course was being served in meeting rooms throughout the Spokane Convention Center. The dozens of topics included “Knife Skills,” “Food Waste in School Meals” and “Breakfast Before the Bell.”
As it turns out, Spokane Public Schools is ahead of the learning curve in several areas, and plans to stay there despite a challenging budget.
For example, “Breakfast Before the Bell” is a new statewide mandate; it deems that when low-income students arrive late to school through no fault of their own, the school must find a way to nourish the body so that the mind will follow.
“They don’t learn until they’re fed,” said Doug Wordell, the district’s director of Nutrition Services since 1998, who added that breakfast before the bell has been a staple in Spokane for several years.
“The law says that you have to offer them something,” Wordell said. “Especially in high-need areas, you know that if this kid was rushing in – we were going to get him something. That’s what we’re here for.”
Wordell says his staff also is there for the students’ overall well-being. That’s why h`e attended a two-part seminar titled “Restorative Practices.”
That seems out of place in the lunchroom – until you’ve walked in the shoes of district employees when a child arrives for breakfast and throws his backpack at them for no apparent reason.
“There are a lot of things that our kids are hit with every day,” Wordell said. “Our staff has to understand that they’re not reacting to them personally, and they need to show kindness and compassion and support.”
District staff held a training session last year on restorative practices, but few could attend this year because they are serving 110,000 summer meals at up to 42 sites per day.
“Hunger doesn’t take a break during the summer,” Wordell said.
Because of budget cuts, some of those employees lost their jobs.
“Our department was among the hardest hit,” Wordell said. “But we’ve just had to become more efficient.”
At the same time, the district will retain its scratch cooking program, but will save money by moving from a six-week menu rotation to a four-week rotation.
“That’s still a lot of choices,” Wordell said.
They’re clean choices, too. Despite the budget cuts, Wordell’s department is committed to maintaining scratch cooking. That means local ingredients, with wheat grown by Eastern Washington farmers, milled locally and processed into flour by Shepherd’s Grain, a sustainability-minded farm alliance in Spokane.
Wordell hopes to make that point to more students in upper grades in Spokane, where only 37% of those attending high school eat from the district menu.
“We’re trying to connect with them, get them to give it a taste and have them say, “Wow, this is good,’” he said.
Another item is coming to the district’s 53 “restaurants,” as Wordell calls them: smoothies, in at least half a dozen flavors.
Student-tested, they’ll be on the menu soon at all middle and and high schools.