Food Co-op Continues Growth Across ESD 113

McCleary and Oakville chefs in their kitchens scratch cooking

Only half a year ago, Team Nutrition Mentor Meredith Arseneau was starting her role at Capital Region ESD 113. Since that November day, the Food Co-op has made incredible strides in many area school districts.

The last time we checked in with the Food Co-op, one of the main focuses was getting scratch cooking into more school kitchens across the district. Much like McCleary with their focaccia bread, other districts are finding success in this endeavor.

Recently, the Co-op held training for some of the district mentees where they brought in a chef to teach them more about scratch cooking and improve their culinary skills.

“We did a whole entrée,” says Arseneau. “We had fresh pico de gallo salsa, cornbread muffins, cowboy beans, and this amazing roasted cauliflower that we put some spices on. That inspired the mentees to take that back into their schools.”

A week later, Arseneau went to Oakville to assist them in their kitchen. Together, they made Tex-Mex meatloaf.

Oakville School District

Making it from scratch allowed them to use their new food processor. All of the ingredients for the meatloaf were prepared in under 5 minutes.

“The cook was so elated,” said Arseneau. “He was just beaming from ear to ear about his new little machine and the meatloaf that we did.”

Oakville wasn’t the only inspired district. Pioneer School District has begun preparing fruits and veggies for a daily salad using its own food processor. They also invited the chef from the mentee training to do one-on-one training in their kitchen to bring everyone else up on new techniques.

Pioneer is also partnered with Washington State University’s Master Gardener program to create a program where students learn about gardens. They would like to incorporate fresh produce from this program.

A couple of districts have plant-based grants and have sent out student surveys on foods they’d like they have, like black bean dip and veggie burgers. They’ve begun making these items from scratch.

Other districts, like Mossyrock, McCleary, Boistfort, and other districts, have also implemented their learning into their kitchens.

“It’s so wonderful to see how they’re incorporating what I’ve been able to share or what they’ve been gaining from this mentor program,” adds Arseneau. “The excitement I’ve seen, it’s like they’re new people.

“That’s the biggest piece, just stepping back and saying ‘wow, they all had this in them.’ It wasn’t me. Now they’re off and running and it isn’t a scary thing anymore. They see they can do it.”

Mossyrock School District kitchen

Cooking techniques are not the only goal of the Co-op. They are looking into getting a Farm-to-School grant that would allow for the creation of a new position to help schools to partner with local farms for produce. They hope to find out more about this grant in July or August so they can fill the position by October.

Another key focus has been student involvement. Getting kids to be part of the cultivating or prepping process will bring things full circle.

Arseneau has been working with ESD 113’s Career Connected Learning Regional Administrator Cecily Kiester on getting CTE credits available to students through their work in the kitchens. Though that would be limited to students in districts with a CTE Coordinator, the goal would also be to offer opportunities in districts that do not have one. Currently, at least two districts have progressed in getting students CTE credits.

“I think kids having the opportunity to see where their food comes from to the time it’s on their plate would be amazing,” said Arseneau. “They would have a chance to feel a sense of accomplishment that they helped contribute to something. The more that we can get kids involved and excited is a big piece of this.”

As the reach of the Co-op grows, so do the opportunities for districts to be a part of the growing program. Anyone interested in joining their mentor program is encouraged to apply.

The Co-op will be expanding to three new districts in the 2023-2024 school year. Both the Rainier and Griffin school districts have already been confirmed, while the third opening is expected to be filled soon.