Chimacum schools focus on fresh, local food

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It’s a tricky balance that many parents will find familiar: you want to provide your kids with a more diverse assortment of meals made from scratch, but you don’t want to overwhelm their finicky palates to the point they won’t eat what you serve them.

Margaret Garrett, who started in September as the food service director for the Chimacum School District, admitted she’s already learned some valuable lessons on how better to strike that balance.

Garrett spent 17 years cooking at remote sites in Alaska, followed by almost 22 years in food service at Seattle University. She said she was drawn to East Jefferson County by the chance to reunite with family members who live here, and to return to a rural area similar to where she grew up.

Not coincidentally, Garrett credited her goals for food service at the Chimacum schools to the values she said she gained from growing up in a community “where we ate fresh fruit in the summer, fruits and vegetables we’d canned in the winter, and beef from cows just down the road.”

After more than 38 years of cooking, coming to Chimacum has renewed her appreciation of locally grown ingredients and the community aspect of meals, especially with three other school districts in East Jefferson County to which she’s been reaching out.

The Chimacum and Port Townsend school districts already partnered on a Farm-to-School Harvest Dinner fundraiser for their respective food service programs, hosted by the Finnriver Farm and Cidery in October. The event yielded about $4,000 for the Chimacum schools’ food services. Garrett hopes to stage more community meals in the future to better acquaint the surrounding community with what their program is doing for students, as well as to develop mutually beneficial relationships with the food service programs of Port Townsend, Quilcene and Brinnon.

“A lot of folks weren’t able to go to that fundraiser,” Garrett said. “We want to show them what local farmers are producing, and introduce them to what we’re doing here.”

Within the Chimacum schools, Garrett noted, the food service program already was cooking meals from scratch at least one day a week before she arrived, but under her watch that’s increased to two or three days per week.

Garrett said the fundraiser has helped cover both equipment purchases and training for food service personnel to help them venture a bit further afield from the heat-and-serve model of school meals.

“We’ve been doing a little bit at a time,” Garrett said. “The white bean chili has done really well with the high school students, but it was too spicy for the elementary school students, even after we made it much milder. Each age group has a different palate. Primary school students prefer food that’s more mellow and are slower to try new things.”

To help connect the students with their meals, Garrett has explored the possibility of joining faculty in teaching some of the cooking classes so they can develop firsthand connections to menu items.

“I hope to use produce from Red Dog Farm in Chimacum before too long,” Garrett said. “I’ve been concentrating on our food service department’s upcoming state audit in February, but I’ve learned something new every day here.”

During the Chimacum School Board’s Nov. 28 meeting, teacher Jamie Jensen praised the food service program under Garrett as “really positive” and doing “exciting” things with its lunches, even as she conceded that “many students are scared to try new things.” To that end, Jensen suggested having faculty join the students in sampling the new menu choices to help ease them into the new cuisine.

At the same meeting, Chimacum School Board Chairman Mike Gould cited research findings that “you’re more likely to eat what you grow yourself,” and likewise lauded Garrett’s commitment to locally sourced and handmade meals.

“To me, when I see a tomato that’s fresh from the garden, and then compare it to one that’s store-bought, it’s like, how can you not think that’s the most wonderful thing in the world?” Garrett said.

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