Friday Harbor High School Food Service Deserves High Praise

Chef at work shelling peas

Last year we interviewed Liz Varvarro, Kitchen Director at the Friday Harbor High School. With National Food Day coming up on October 24, we thought you might like to see how community members who are dedicated to providing healthy food for school children have created a model school lunch program. The following interview is from our January 11, 2011 blog post:


Blast the Rocky music!  The Friday Harbor food service program has scaled new heights!  In 2008, Kitchen Director Liz Varvaro and Chef Andy Radzialowski and three colleagues took the helm of a floundering lunch program that was nearly $100,000 in the red; within a little over two years, they turned it around.

With a little seed money and a 1-year grant, they developed agreements with local farmers, producers, and suppliers, to provide the raw ingredients  they would need to cook nutritious, palate-pleasing lunches.  Their goal was to make the program completely sustainable within the school district, using as much locally-grown foods as possible.  The numbers clearly show they have landed on the path to success.  As of December, the program is in the black.

They prepare all the meals from scratch without additives, stabilizers, high fructose corn syrup and pre-processed items.  In doing so, they have not only improved the school district’s bottom line, they’ve also created a new interest in dining among students, teachers and the larger community.  More students are now staying on campus to eat the school-provided lunch instead of heading off campus for high-priced diner food; consequently, administrators have noticed a decline in the 5th period truancy rate; kids are just hanging around school more.

In addition to procuring the local ingredients, another important component of the program is student involvement.  It starts with Culinary Arts 1 & 2 and Baking 1, where students learn basic cooking and knife skills, recipe comprehension, and culinary math .  If students decide they would like to continue, they move into the next tract – Chef 1.0 and 2.0, and International, where they learn the basics of food service skills, get their food handlers permit, develop a portfolio of recipes, and rotate into the hands-on kitchen work.

Liz Varvaro, Kitchen Director, and Andy Radzialowski, Executive Chef

Chef 2.0 is actually a leadership type of role, where the students help teach those entering the program and about the kitchen.  They then move on to required internships and resident jobs in the community.  With 13 student chef interns in the kitchen, and 6 students rotating in from the lower level classes, there’s a lot of instruction going on.  Chef Andy points out that everything takes longer when teaching, and it’s not a classroom where you can stop and explain things easily – they have meals to get out.

The students produce approximately 550 lunches and 50 breakfasts daily.  About 400 of those meals are transported to the elementary school and some of the other private schools.  In addition, they prepare the “Grab ‘N Go” foods sold in the Student Store – a sandwich of the day, cookies, fruit and other easy, quick and healthy  snacks.  The store is staffed by Special Needs children, who learn real-world job skills by taking customer’s orders, counting change, and understanding good customer service.

Vivid Photos and Schematic on Bulletin Board Put a Face on the Program

Not only do the kitchen staff supervise meal production, they supervise meal “selection.”

A monitor stands at each buffet line, making sure the young diners have selected appropriate portions of and variety of proteins, vegetables and fruits; in other words, the kids can’t have 4 slices of pizza and no vegetables on the plate.  Elementary students are encouraged to make sure they have “a colorful plate” – fruits and vegetables come in all different colors, and are an easy way to help younger children develop their palate.

Monitors also oversee an ingenious waste center, and use this as an opportunity to chat with students who are taking food and not eating it, teaching them how to break bad eating habits.  At the waste center, tray waste is dumped into a bin to feed local pigs; milk is mixed with left-over rice and grains for chickens; cartons are crushed and put in recycle bins; coffee grounds, paper towels, natural napkins and the like are destined for the worm bin behind the school; and pre-consumer waste goes to a local farm’s compost pile.  Since they don’t use pre-packaged foods in the kitchen, the total amount of actual garbage has been reduced to almost nothing.  Last summer, the local Slow Foods chapter started a community garden to teach students the connection of food from farm to table, further enhancing the “local” connection.

Even parents are encouraged to dine with their children. At a cost of $6 for “guest” lunches, it’s a delicious and inexpensive meal.  Reduced fares are available for needy families – just 40¢ for lunch.  The menus aren’t your typical cafeteria fare, either.  Selections on last months’ menu included Thai Beef and Potato Curry with Rice; BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwich on a Fresh Baked Roll with Cole Slaw;  Honey Mustard Pork Loin with Rice; Penne Pasta Parmesan with Italian Sausage; Hoisin-Ginger Chicken and Vegetable Stir Fry; Chicken Gyros with Greek Romaine Salad and Tzatziki; Salmon Tacos with Salsa and Cole Slaw; Lemon Chicken with Bow Tie Pasta.  But the real treat is the monthly community dinner.  Open to the general public, the full dinner is only $10 – a bargain by any standard!  Proceeds from this meal help cover costs for the program’s supplies including chef coats, knives, and other equipment that the students share.

The entire program has become an enviable model of how a dedicated staff, district farmers, and local foodies can impact and shape the future of our children and healthy eating.  Our hats are off to the Food For Thought program staff!


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