by Melissa Fontaine
If Julia Child were to visit the most inspiring school cafeterias across the entire West Coast, she would certainly have to visit Solvang Elementary School– according to Dayle Hayes. Hayes is a School Nutrition Expert who writes the blog “School Meals that Rock.” She chose to honor Julia Child’s birthday this year by imagining where she would take the late legendary chef to lunch to show her the school food revolution.
Hayes believes that if Child were alive today, she would love to see that care and thoughtfulness have become primary ingredients in school meals. In her blog post, Hayes mentions six remarkable schools that serve hand-tossed pizzas, grow produce on site, or offer educational programs. But to be a potential lunch site for Hayes to take Child, the schools had to “serve made-from-scratch food, support local farmers and ranchers, and teach children how good food tastes.” Solvang Elementary School, led by School Food Initiative Chef Instructor Bethany Markee, displays all these criteria.
Like a maître d’ working the floor in a fine dining restaurant, Chef Bethany constantly interacts with her clientele, who just happen to be children. She uses their feedback to make improvements that keep her customers happy. In many ways, the Solvang Elementary school kitchen resembles a farm-to-table restaurant. Employees prepare colorful, locally grown produce, and the customers smile as they congratulate the chef on a great dining experience. In this case, the customers are 6-12 years old and telling their “cafeteria lady” how much they liked the hot lunch item of the day.
Chef Bethany works tirelessly to offer this experience to her students. She collaborates with Veggie Rescue, which donates thousands of pounds of organic, local produce to the Solvang cafeteria. This helps her budget and gives her the ability to offer more fresh fruits and vegetables. The challenge for her and her small staff is to process all that fresh food. She recently received a delivery of 610 pounds of organic, local tomatoes. Many people in her position would—understandably–politely decline the offer. Not Chef Bethany. She organized some help and turned the tomatoes into pasta sauce for her students.
Chef Bethany has a remarkable amount of enthusiasm to undertake such endeavors. But she also possesses what many school food workers do not- the appropriate equipment to process this quantity of produce. To make the gallons of pasta sauce, Chef Bethany used her indispensable tilt skillet—an equipment grant from the Orfalea Foundation’s School Food Initiative.
Chef Bethany’s energy seems to come from two sources: gratitude and inspiration. Her students appreciate her for the delicious, wholesome food she provides, and she appreciates the students who call her “Chef” when they see her on the streets of their small town. She says that “totally makes my day.”
Julia Child is also an inspiration to Chef Bethany, who is honored that someone would want to bring Child to eat lunch at her cafeteria. Bethany admired Child’s willingness to go above and beyond what was expected of her. Child left an indisputable legacy to thousands of chefs and home cooks because she encouraged people to try something new in the kitchen and have a good time while doing it. Haley recognizes six school food chefs as leaders in their field; people who are able and willing to go above and beyond what is expected of them, and because of these efforts, will also leave an indisputable legacy.
(Editor’s Note: Learn more innovative leaders addressing food systems, school food, and hunger in America during Food Sovereignty Week in Santa Barbara.)