Weekend Highlights

Published March 21, 2011
Our Schools

A Food Revolution in Seattle Schools?

by Rebekah Denn
seattle child article photo
Eric Boutin, nutrition director for Seattle Public Schools
Photo courtesy of Seattle Public Schools

seattle child article photo
Photo of the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, Calif., from the book Edible Schoolyard: A Universal Idea by Alice Waters


Eric Boutin knows his way around a good kitchen. The son of a chef, he grew up cooking and waiting tables. Eventually, he managed a restaurant. Now he’s a member of Slow Food Seattle and an advocate for whole, healthy foods. 

Those are unusual resume details for his newest job, nutrition director for Seattle Public Schools. But in an age of White House gardens and food revolutions, Boutin’s arrival may signal a sea change in school lunches, notoriously known as food wastelands. 

Before coming to the state’s largest school district, Boutin held the same spot in the Auburn schools, where he was hailed for moves like bringing in fruits and vegetables from local farmers, promoting conversations that led to a ban on chocolate milk at elementary breakfasts, and supporting a student garden meant to supply cafeterias. (He’s also worked in various Eastside school districts, as well as with a software company specializing in the food service industry.)

Seattle’s Child recently chatted with Boutin about his goal to bring healthier foods into the schools – and what barriers he faces. One early bright spot: The Seattle district just received grants (see last month’s Seattle Child) to help train food service staff in nutrition and kitchen skills. Here are some edited, condensed highlights from our conversation.

SC: Tell us a little about your work in Auburn and how you started focusing on whole foods in schools.

Boutin: I decided we just had to do it after I went down to the Alice Waters Edible Schoolyard (“kitchen-garden classroom”) in Berkeley. I had this food background all along, and my wife is a dietitian. We like to support the farmers markets, and we do that in our home life. At school, we have limited budgets, there are limits to what we can do – but there are things that can be done. You can stop serving pizza and corn dogs every single day. It’s based on the cooks (and community) having the same vision. You’ve got to work a little harder, maybe, but I think they found you just have to work differently. We accomplished a lot using organic red potatoes from the Skagit Valley.

SC: How tough is it to get local produce in the schools?

Boutin: Farm-to-school is quite the buzzword right now, from the First Lady on down, but it’s actually difficult to get farmers to want to do business with you. They are doing all they can do just to grow what they need for the farm. There are supply issues. It’s hard for a school district to have 30 different farmers come to their loading dock. There’s a reason for a middleman, one company who collects from all the farmers and brings you a standard size and so forth.

SC: What are other barriers to serving better foods in school?


Really, what we have to do is figure out how to fund this, which is easier said than done. You can’t have the cooks make a first-class lunch, a gorgeous organic fresh lunch, for the buck, buck and a quarter they get for food costs. It’s (also) partly a training issue, that the cooks have the skills to prepare these foods. And, I think people would be surprised, but kids don’t really want the foods you and I are talking about. Everybody says they will, but on first blush, we have to get our kids to a place where they want fresh roasted potatoes instead of French fries … We need teachers and parents talking about why we should be eating fresh roasted chicken rather than chicken nuggets.

SC: Where would you like the district to be on chocolate milk? Even my pediatrician said it was better than no milk at all.

Boutin: I’ve found that if you ask 50 dietitians, 25 will say white milk only and 25 will say whatever milk they’ll drink, including chocolate. So it’s not clear, but this is what I think: I don’t think it helps anyone to start their day with a mouthful of chocolate.

SC: When money is tight, we hear arguments like, “Why worry about fresh or organic or local food in schools? Isn’t getting hungry kids food, period, all that matters?”

Boutin: Mathematically, I guess you could say (school meals) are nutritious (now), but I’m not going there. I’m saying we really need to be serving fresh wholesome foods. We also support the community in a fairly critical way in Seattle. Over 40 percent of our students qualify for free or reduced price meals, at some of the schools it’s 80 percent or more.

SC: Is an “Edible Schoolyard” program just a dream for us?

Boutin: Almost three quarters of Seattle schools have some sort of garden in a state of repair or disrepair … I don’t know that there’s a lot of connection to the lunchrooms right now, but that’s one of the things we hope to foster.

SC: What else would you like people to know about the program?

Boutin: We’ve moved almost all our bread products to whole-wheat now – the hamburger buns, the English muffins, the toast in the morning … We’ve made a lot of connections with local farmers and continue to try to figure out how to connect with them. We have 13,000 organic apples coming in. We’re doing the right things, I think, and we’d certainly like feedback. (Write them at nutritionservices@seattleschools.org.) 

Food writer Rebekah Denn wishes more pediatricians had OK’d chocolate milk when she was a kid.

(2) Comment(s)

Thanks for running this story. I have been thinking about doing this since my son started in elementary school. He is now is 5th grade. Last year we planted and grew a garden in a beautiful raised bed that a parent volunteer built for us. The 4th graders were learning about re-cyle concepts and ecology. They also had a Native American unit. Our teacher at Schmitz Park Elementary,Ms.Addington Ferris, wanted to plant a winter garden. It gave us a spring harvest that was beautiful! The kids planted,harvested and ate a beautiful bounty of vegetables.We decorated the native American feast tables with the veggies. WE also had a day for another harvest and picked and ate salad. We even sent some home veggies to the whole class and had leftovers to sent home with all the teachers. We had more to harvest but due to being in close proximity to Schmitz Park preserve, poison hemlock was found in a bed that was left to go weedy. (Not our vegetable garden) I have a back ground in horticulture so nothing in our garden had the weed. We had to disguard all the rest of the vegetables and the principle said that we could not eat out of the gardens until we took everything out of the beds and started from scratch. He also said that we could not take anything home.Since poison hemlock is fatal if eaten, we had to go with the principles suggestion. Now that we have done that we can start a new garden. I have spoken with the people in our food program and said that we could grow all our own fresh fruit and veggies. They would have to be protected as the school yard is open to the general public. I love your ideas and really want this to become a reality. The kids really love the fact that they can grow their own food. With a small initial investment and some time and water, you have fresh great tasting food. Not to mention all the savings in garbage and packaging as well as cost savings from not purchasing from farmers. With covered growing spaces, it could be done all year long. P.S. Our school has it's own compost program. Last years 4th graders implemented it and taught the whole school how to do it during lunch and breakfast. They are 5th graders this year and will go on to middle school. When you say no more pizza and corn dogs, I have to agree. Even the kids at the middle school don't want that every day. They have the facilities to cook and make salads, sandwiches and hot entrees. Yes we can! (...and we should)

Posted by Laura Logan on Mar 24, 2011

I was driving home from one of my jobs a couple days ago. Winding my way through the viaduct closure route, I saw something in the corner of my eye: "Seattle Schools" and something about a job opening for nutrition (cook) teacher. So wasted between two jobs, I thought it was a dream. When I finally get enough time to look for this "dream job" that falls perfectly within my abilities, training, and education level...I have to at least apply to this job. In my first search to find a website to Seattle Public Schools nutrition, I came across this article and my head exploded inside of my skull. Could it be? Is it finally time? Is the community ready? Is the government ready? Lets do some gardens, grow some food and feed the kids the fuel that they need to grow strong minds. Sign me up, hire me now so we can get a good start on 2012. Amen.

Posted by Yoruba Pryor on Jul 13, 2011

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More About This Story...


New School Meal Rules

Want to have a say in school lunches and school breakfasts? You’ve got until April 13 to give the U.S. Department of Agriculture your feedback on proposed new nutrition standards.

The new guidelines, the first in 15 years, would add more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to school meals, and cap calories, saturated fats, and salt. Milk would need to be low-fat or non-fat (but flavored non-fat milk is still OK). View the proposal and submit comments online at www.regulations.gov. Search for “Nutrition Standards School Lunch 2011.” The proposed rules should be at the top.

A spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association told the Boston Globe that the new menus would be “a great first step.”

Read More about the Edible Schoolyard

Eric Boutin talks in this interview about the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, Calif., which has inspired tens of thousands of visitors, including Charles, the Prince of Wales. 

Alice Waters, who started the Edible Schoolyard, also wrote a book about the creation and growth of the school garden as well as the principles that guide it:

  • Food is an Academic Subject
  • School Provides Lunch for Every Child
  • Schools Support Farms
  • Children Learn by Doing
  • Beauty is a Language

As inspiring as the project as is, it's easy to be cynical about the idea that the Edible Schoolyard could ever come to Seattle. It seems so driven by the force of Waters and those who joined her in the project. Then again, Seattle has been known to conquer bureaucracy and inertia to create great things in the past.

The book is called Edible Schoolyard: A Universal Idea and is published by Chronicle Books.

- Ruth Schubert