back talk eating
Image: Jim Golden

As head chef at Wildwood Restaurant, you built your reputation by using the best local ingredients. Now your job as Oregon’s farm-to-school program manager is to convince schools to buy those same ingredients—yet with far less money. The schools can spend $1 per meal, per child, and translate that into a sale of $2.00 or $2.50.

With that kind of budget, it seems like there will be a lot of compromises. Back in 1994, you charged $16 for a tandoori-roasted chicken at a restaurant, and now that same chicken is $25. I think we began to see a value in spending more. That’s what has to happen with this [school lunch] equation.

A new pilot program will give Portland schools seven more cents per meal per kid for the 2008-09 school year. If the Oregon Legislature eventually expands the program to cover all Oregon schools, what will that seven cents do? Right now it’s earmarked for Oregon product. We’re going to see if it costs seven cents more to get green beans from Truitt Brothers [an Oregon food processor], as opposed to from Kentucky.

Aren’t parents and educators mainly concerned about kids’ health? How exactly does buying local affect that? If you can get them to eat fresher product, that’s better. The thing we’re focusing on right now is "lightly processed" product—meaning no preservatives, no information on the package that you can’t pronounce.

For example? Making a dried soup base, adding precooked beans to it, water, salt. Adding fresh chopped onion and carrots and celery would really bring up the nutritional value. Of course, it could be that kids won’t eat it.

How do you overcome their resistance to new foods? Kids like to go to Panda Express. They like tacos. The food at the schools has to look a bit like that. I’m not into changing the menus. It’s about where the ingredients come from.

Who is ultimately in charge of that—you? The food service administrators are the gatekeepers. This is a generation of people who have spent 20 years on the job. They receive commodities that are already cooked; then they thaw that stuff out, throw it in an oven, serve it. When we call them to ask if they are interested in buying locally, some of them are like, "No, not interested, don’t have the money, I’m not in charge." But about 30 percent want to administer change.

If you had as much money as you wanted to make a school lunch, what would you prepare? Rice with steamed broccoli or raw carrots, maybe a bowl of soup with some poached chicken floating on top. Possibly some dairy.

So you want to keep it simple. I have crazier ideas. When kids go to culinary school, could the government do something like they do with the military and say, "OK, we’ll finance your education if you spend two years in the public schools using your skill set when you are done"?

How far away are we from that? There’s a strong coalition of people out there trying to get us back to the basics. Positions like mine are popping up in Kentucky, Texas, Vermont. There are similar efforts afoot in Washington. Maybe it’s not that far.