Vegetable cups

As anyone with a child to feed knows, it’s not always easy to provide fresh, healthy meals that kids will like. EASD Food Services is on a mission to revitalize the school dining experience, exposing students to fresh fruits and vegetables and helping to curate a lifelong taste for healthy foods. We sat down with Food Services Director Tori Castine to learn more about the challenges and opportunities she sees for the school meal program.

Castine notes that participation in the National School Lunch Program, which offers free and reduced-price meals to qualifying students, has dropped, though families are still in need. “The nationwide program that provided free meals for all students for the past two years expired with the start of the 2022-23 school year. As a result, families may not know what resources are available or that school lunch is cheaper than going to the grocery store,” she says. Applications for free and reduced-price meals are available annually in August via Family Access and can be submitted throughout the school year by qualifying families. Despite free school meals for all no longer being available, EASD’s participation in a 13-district co-op has allowed us to maintain school meal prices this year when many districts throughout the state and nation have had to raise prices. As part of a co-op, EASD can negotiate with vendors for mass quantities of healthy food options. Many of the co-op directors, like Castine, hold degrees in nutrition. Castine has a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and minored in public health at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This group of food health professionals works with local farmers and markets to bring food into our schools. Castine says, “Working together, we have buying power and a better ability to circumvent supply chain issues, keeping healthy foods on the menu.” 

Castine spoke to us about some new initiatives in our schools to encourage students to eat hot lunch and get our kids involved in growing and choosing the healthy meals that go on their plates. At the elementary level, many students work with hydroponics as part of their PLTW curriculum to grow their own lettuce. Castine would like to expand our gardens to grow even more fresh vegetables to service our entire district and initiate a composting program. At the high school, “bowl-style” meals have been introduced and proven very popular with our students. Much like a trip to Chipotle, our students can choose their base of healthy grains and protein and then add vegetables and other toppings.

Ashley Drake, from the Food Services administrative team, introduced “Share Bins” this year, which allow students to give and take, share foods they may not want from their hot lunch, and grab an extra cup of fruit or veggies from their peers. “Not only does this initiative help cut down on waste, but it also ensures that students who may not be exposed to fresh foods at home get the opportunity at school,” Drake says.  Staff are also sharing their expertise. Anna from the Middle School kitchen regularly tests gluten-free recipes at home for our students with dietary restrictions. Our School Nutrition Workers don’t just scoop and serve. “Our kitchen staff take great pride in what they do. They have relationships with our students,” says Castine. 

In the same vein of the “Share Bin,” did you know that when EASD has extra produce, milk, or dry goods left over due to snow days and school breaks, they often work with local food pantries and charities to make sure that food doesn’t go to waste? In addition to local Walworth County pantries, EASD Food Services donates to the Elkhorn Rec and LOVE, Inc. in Burlington. They also work closely with our school social workers to find families in our community who may need extra help over the weekends or during extended school breaks. 

During the coronavirus pandemic school shutdown of 2020, EASD Food Services fed students every day and provided meals to anyone in our community who was in need. This spirit of giving was made possible not only by the willingness of our Food Services staff to go the extra mile but by donations made to both the EASD Education Foundation and the School Lunch Angel Fund. The School Lunch Angel Fund provides short-term assistance to families in need by covering negative lunch account balances and ensuring no child goes home hungry. For the cost of paying it forward in the coffee line, you could provide two to three school meals for a student in need! 

Search @EatAtEASD on Facebook to follow along with the EASD Food Services team’s new initiatives. Be sure to give them a “like.”