WALLA WALLA — The food arrived fresh and hot to Assumption Catholic School, made to order by culinary students from Walla Walla Community College.
The menu for the day featured turkey lasagna with slices of zucchini buried in layers of pasta and cheese; green beans steamed in a lemon and butter sauce; and diced chunks of juicy watermelon.
Parent volunteer Beth Swanson delivered the just-cooked food to Assumption in time to prepare for Wednesday’s lunch. A team of parents tied on aprons and slipped on gloves to begin serving in the school’s new effort at providing hot, healthy food to its students.
The partnership between Assumption and the WWCC culinary arts program was forged earlier this year when Assumption parents and leaders approached the college with an idea.
The Assumption kitchen has sat mostly unused for years. Hot lunches were once offered at the school, long before Principal John Lesko came on, he said. When the kitchen staff position was cut, the school provided meals through a partnership with Walla Walla Public Schools — but that ended, too. The school then offered Burger King and Hepler’s Big Cheese pizza some days of the week as a hot food choice.
Yet the desire to offer healthier choices remained a priority. Lesko reached out to parents, and found several ready to make something happen. An initial group met with Lesko in the spring to brainstorm ways to provide healthier hot meals to students.
“We were all together,” Lesko said about those initial spring discussions. “We were trying to look for ways to improve it. Parents felt the same way. But the parents really drove it.”
Swanson, who was one of those parents, contacted the community college, and Assumption found an eager partner that had been looking for just such an opportunity.
Jay Entrikin, culinary instructor at the college, said the culinary program was exploring ways to be more involved in the community when Swanson approached him.
With children’s health a growing concern these days, the college had a goal of conducting outreach in the community to promote better eating and healthier cooking.
Entrikin said the partnership became a great way to meet part of that goal, and to include culinary arts students.
“We want to be more involved, and get the kids more involved in the community,” he said.
Since the college is not in session yet, a group of about six students who have been working the college’s cafe and catering business this summer are also preparing the school meals. Once school starts later this month, students can participate in the Assumption meal program as a cooperative work experience, where they earn credits while working in the industry.
“This gives our students an opportunity to understand how important it is to nutritiously balance a menu, and have the right amounts of vegetables and whole grains,” Entrikin said.
Entrikin said he started developing a menu over the summer, researching child nutrition guidelines and going from there. He saw the need to keep fats down, and focus on healthy grains, fresh fruits and vegetables prepared in a way that is appealing to youngsters.
“We’re excited to start giving these kids some healthy options,” Entrikin said. “We want it to taste good, and we want the kids to like it.”
The new lunch program kicked off Monday at Assumption, and will be offered three days a week — Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays. A simple menu of kid-friendly but healthy and nutritious meals are being offered each of those days over three weeks, before the menu selection restarts.
The new program will require parent volunteers to keep it going. Parents are responsible for picking up the food from the community college, serving it in the Assumption kitchen and returning the college’s supplies when lunch is done. Older students help out with cafeteria set-up and cleaning dishes.
Swanson is one of three lead parents picking up food from the college on specific days. About a dozen parents are lined up to help with lunchtime duties, she said. Along with Swanson, three other parents were on hand Wednesday to serve the meals.
Chrisy Jones, one of the parents serving the lasagna, said it went smoothly.
“It was fun to see the children’s faces excited to get a home-cooked meal,” she said.
Student reaction to the lasagna meal was roundly positive.
Josie Kjeldgaard, 11, took bites of her watermelon, her lasagna long gone and only a few green beans remaining.
“It was amazing,” the sixth-grader said about the lunch. “I like the lasagna the best and the watermelon. I think it’s a lot healthier and better for us.”
“I think it’s great,” said Shawn Fazzari, 14, an eighth-grader at Assumption, between bites. “I think that we should do this for every school.”
About 40 meals were ordered Wednesday, and about 60 had been placed for Friday’s baked chicken tenders, sweet potato fries, fresh fruit and cookie. Assumption serves about 230 students in kindergarten through eighth grades.
Parents who want their child to have a hot lunch place their orders online a week ahead, and can choose from a junior-sized portion for $3.50, or a large portion for $5. The college can then go online at the end of the week to prepare.
Pizza is still on the menu on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when the culinary program meals are not offered. Lesko said the school will evaluate the new program in a few months to see if there is the need to make changes or potentially expand.
Swanson said there is also a goal of adding an educational component. This past week, Walla Walla Catholic Schools hosted a showing of the documentary “Super Size Me” at DeSales Catholic High School, in partnership with the Moms’ Network, and brought in speakers to share healthy eating tips with families. More film screenings are in the works.
In the meantime, the new offerings are a welcome change.
“It’s a healthy choice, and it’s something different,” Lesko said. “We’re fortunate to be able to provide that for them.”
Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8317.