Food Co-op Making a Difference in ESD 113

school cafeteria

Meredith Arseneau didn’t take long to make a difference after joining Capital Region 113 as the Team Nutrition Mentor. Since she began in November, her work across the ESD has already led to food service improvements in nine districts.

Arseneau spent 12 years working in the North Kitsap School District, where she started as a nutrition assistant. She worked her way up, doing everything from working in the kitchen to driving trucks to deliver food to working in the offices.

Following that position, she became a Food Service Director in Sequim for the next four years. She credits this position with really getting to know the inner workings of the school food service system. COVID impacted her duties during three of the four years she was there.

“All of those skills from the very beginning when I walked in and was doing dishes until now has given me the ability and experience to be where I’m at and understand all aspects of the food-service program,” states Arseneau.

Her job isn’t to come in and take over any school district’s kitchen, and she has no plans to anytime soon. She provides support and empowers those already working to utilize the available tools to create something just short of magic.

“Usually when I come in, and we get to know each other, they’re like, ‘this is not what I thought it was going to be,” says Arseneau. “I’ve had districts say, ‘oh my gosh, I was so afraid. But when are you coming back?’”

Recently, she visited the McCleary School District to help in their kitchen. While there, she suggested they try to make more items from scratch as they had the materials to do so.

The suggestion of making bread worried the kitchen lead as it was not one of her strengths. Arseneau shared a recipe and encouraged the kitchen lead to try it out. Some days later, McCleary had fresh focaccia bread fresh from their ovens for their students to enjoy.

Now, the lead is showing her kitchen assistants how to make bread confidently.

McCleary School District's Lacey Madison stands next to freshly made bread
McCleary School District’s Lacey Madison stands next to freshly made bread

This is just one of the responsibilities of the Team Nutrition Mentor. Scratch cooking is one of the many ways that providing healthier food choices for kids can happen in the background.

“From that first moment, she goes from thinking ‘I can’t do this’ to now she’s showing somebody,” said Arseneau. “It’s so in-depth what we’re doing, and I don’t know what it’s going to look like at each district. I just know I come in and say, ‘hey, I’ve got this tool,’ and now someone else is using the tool. It’s amazing.”

Changing perceptions has been the most significant part of the job. For food service, that’s not just limited to the kitchen directly.

It’s about helping with budgeting and food costs. It’s about helping districts write grants that allow them to receive new funding. It’s about bridging gaps between the kitchens, the other departments they work with but may be separated from, and outsider viewpoints.

“What I’m finding when I go out to the districts is that it’s a bigger picture that they need help with,” acknowledges Arseneau. “A lot of our districts are small, and the food service department gets separated into different sections. While I’m helping someone in the kitchen, I’m also helping with the finance piece.”

For one district, her responsibilities include helping get their food costs under control while still providing healthy options. She has also assisted with helping districts fill staffing shortages in their kitchens and has assisted them with writing grants to increase their budget.

Sometimes finding the money isn’t even about getting a grant. With one district, she was able to teach their lead about net off invoice – a reduction in their cost utilizing entitlement money from the state and federal funding – where they managed to find that there was around $4,000 that wasn’t being utilized in their budget.

Now, they’re implementing a plan to use the funds or carry them over to next year instead of being lost.

Another district got some relief simply by her coming in and organizing their freezer.

“Sometimes it’s just that extra step that someone needs someone to come in and help with,” adds Arseneau. “There are times that it can feel overwhelming, and you don’t know where to start. Having someone come in that understands where they are at brings a relief to the staff.

“So, I can just come in as fresh eyes and say, ‘hey if we move this here and this there’ and it just feels better and they’re happier.”

The Team Nutrition program is grant sponsored for two years. Arseneau wants to see it continue to grow beyond that time and beyond the nine districts currently being serviced.

She especially would like to work with smaller districts that may typically not feel like they have the capabilities to change how they operate and also set up a farm-to-school program at some point.

“I love what I’m doing. It brings joy to me and my whole being to help people accomplish their goals.”