Loving fresh food at Glen Lake and Leelanau School

By Pat Stinson
Sun contributor

It’s just past noon at Glen Lake Schools, and elementary students are lined up for the day’s lunch: homemade barbequed chicken wings, lettuce salad dressed with homemade cherry vinaigrette, and cups of creamy tomato-basil soup made from scratch.

By 1 p.m. a few miles to the north, the dining hall of The Leelanau School is empty of students, but a bowl of apples, bananas and grapes sits on a table inside the doorway for mid-afternoon snackers. The caramel aroma of fresh-baked squash, already scooped and ready to purée for the next day’s dinner, is spilling out of the kitchen.

On a typical school day during the growing season, food service directors at both institutions are serving up as many locally grown, fresh ingredients as their budgets and time allow. They’re also teaching students to cook and, with the help of faculty, familiarizing them with the sources of their food.

What’s cookin’ at Glen Lake Schools

Gene Peyerk, food service director at Glen Lake, explains that lunches “home” made in the school’s kitchen contain lower amounts of fat, cholesterol and sodium and higher grams of fiber. Even the kitchen’s corn dog, served with sweet potato fries, is healthier — with a turkey dog on the inside and whole grain outside.

Glen Lake Schools replaced processed heat-and-eat meals, warmed in microwave ovens or dunked in fryers, with lunches made mostly from scratch. According to Peyerk, one factor that made the school’s transition easier: a 1992 kitchen remodeling project that included the purchase of convection ovens, soup kettles and steam tables. Also facilitating the change was a two-year grant to help buy fresh fruit and vegetables. (When the grant period expired, Peyerk said the school board voted to subsidize the cost of buying “fresh.”) Both made it possible for the school to replace frozen soups and “just add water” prepackaged foods with healthier choices that kids enjoy, such as ravioli with homemade sauce and potato-cheese pierogis.

The transition brought with it a bit of a learning curve.

For three months, two serving lines were offered: one for the old food and one for fresher, homemade fare. “When all the old stuff was gone, for the first couple of weeks there was a revolt, (he chuckles at the memory), then it started picking up.”

He says many more students per day are buying lunch than they were before fresh foods were served, and they’re getting a taste for “watermelon, pineapples and all that stuff now. For so long, everything’s been processed.”

Some stealth cooking also is involved. Peyerk admits he “sneaks” 20 pounds of squash into the homemade macaroni-and-cheese sauce, “to yellow it up,” an idea he got while watching the Food Network on TV. (Students eat it and comment that “it’s a little sweet,” he relates with a grin.) The kitchen is serving more root vegetables too, such as beets, and he claims “the kids really like it.”

Peyerk plans the menus when he receives his weekly flyer from Cherry Capital Foods, a distributor of fresh produce grown on northern Michigan farms. The flyer lists items available in the upcoming delivery. This week’s haul includes cabbages, leeks and carrots, and pie pumpkins and 40 pounds of fresh cranberries await another special use. Potatoes and fall apples are delivered by Suttons Bay farmer Jim Bardenhagen, and the Korson farm in Northport keeps Glen Lake’s kitchen stocked with apples through December.

Other measures the school takes to keep things healthier for students include: switching off vending machines with snacks and candy until hot lunch is served; selling wraps, calzones, pizza and sandwiches after 3 p.m. to students involved in extracurricular activities; serving hot, meal-type foods at athletic events in addition to snacks; and offering a morning exercise class to keep students moving, taught by Amy White, a home economics teacher who, Peyerk says, “is taking it to the next level.”

“If you’re not moving, it really doesn’t matter what we eat,” Peyerk explains.

Dishin’ the real deal at The Leelanau School

Jim Bristol, The Leelanau School’s director of food services, says he buys squash and other fresh vegetables and fruits in season from a farm within 60 miles. The farmer offers reasonable prices, dependable delivery and a good selection — thanks to a cooperative arrangement with other growers.

The school also purchases some of its apples from Ryan Noonan, fresh asparagus in season from the Norconk farm south of Empire and eggs from another farmer. For five summers, Bristol has bought pork and lamb from Leelanau 4-H students. Fresh herbs were grown in a garden behind the kitchen and another small garden plot supplied some lettuce and hydroponic tomatoes. (Tomatoes, he says, are the kitchen’s number-one produce, because of their multiple uses. Staff recently juiced four bushels of romas, and set aside the pulp for sauces.)

In all, Bristol says the school has incorporated northwest lower Michigan food products into its menus for at least eight years, due in large part to the enthusiastic support of former Headmaster and President Rich Odell. One of his many school donations included spending his weekends picking strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and peaches at area farms and orchards. He would bring the fruit to the school’s kitchen for Bristol’s wife to can. Bristol says Rob Himburg, the school’s principal, is a foodie and has been involved with the kitchen’s efforts too.

But now it’s November, and this year’s harvest of fresh food is over.

“It’s a sad day,” says Bristol, opening a walk-in cooler and pointing to two bushels of onions, lots of potatoes and some apples and cabbage. “It’s the end of the season — our last delivery.”

Until next spring, he and his assistant, Deborah Rock, will rely on an “All Natural” line of produce offered by Gordon Food Service, which also supplies the school with most of its staples and meat.

“It’s more cost effective than organic,” he says, adding that when a greenhouse is put into service during the winter term by students in science teacher Bruce Hood’s class, the kitchen expects to be able to serve fresh, mixed greens.

Throughout the school year, the kitchen also offers a taco/nacho bar, hamburgers, hot dogs, brats and pizza. “You have to give them things they want,” Bristol explains. “You can’t shove vegetables down them.” Students crave grilled food so much, he continued, they will shovel snow and ice in order to make the outdoor grill accessible to kitchen staff during winter term.

Making food connections

Peyerk is excited about Glen Lake’s commitment to “real” food and is no less enthusiastic when discussing the school’s gardening project.

For three years, a 20-by-30-foot greenhouse and 15-by-100-foot garden have offered students a first-hand look at where food comes from, and hands-on experience in growing and harvesting vegetables.

Glen Lake’s elementary school students start heirloom seeds in the hothouse, (part of the roof was blown off during the recent storm and must be replaced), and teacher Kathi Thoreson brings the 2-to-3-inch seedlings to the garden for planting. Peyerk and his after-school “La Fresca” culinary class of 12 seniors rototill the soil, water and nurture the plants, and harvest the crops. Peyerk says they’ve grown cucumbers, zucchini, crooked-neck squash, tomatoes, potatoes, beans, swiss chard, cabbage, herbs and beets.

Peyerk, himself, has planted dwarf fruit trees — three peach and two cherry — near the garden.

“If we had our own little orchard, then why not have a horticulture or science teacher teach a little of that?” he asks, thinking of other ways to bring students closer to their food.

The small gardens at The Leelanau School are maintained by staff, and the greenhouse isn’t operational yet, but that hasn’t stopped Bristol and Rock from giving students the opportunity to investigate their food sources. The pair planned an outing for a small group at a Gordon Food Service show in Grand Rapids. Students in a cooking class also toured Black Star Farms in Suttons Bay and Higher Grounds Trading Company in Traverse City.

In the past, all of the student body picked apples at a local orchard and made apple cider. Insurance concerns on the part of orchards put a stop to picking visits. Undaunted, Bristol bought “truckloads” of apples this year, and students once again made apple cider with teacher Norm Wheeler. Apples were also used to bake pies, strudel and turnovers — an all-day event. (A considerable number of the baked goods were donated.)

“We cheated,” Bristol says, explaining that they wanted to reduce visits to the school nurse. “We used apple corers and peelers.”

Food Service Assistant Rock said the students had fun figuring out who had carved the longest continuous peel.

“No matter how he-man they act, the boys always like to show us what they’ve done,” Bristol added.

Other food service events which include students are the annual Mother’s Day brunch led by Wheeler, (a fundraiser for Habitat for Humanity), and a cooking class “Iron Chef” competition.

Both schools are offering a Thanksgiving luncheon one week before the holiday. The lunch at The Leelanau School on Nov. 18 includes students, and Bristol says they try to invite as many local people as they can. Tables are decorated by the art classes, with gourds carved by the students and Indian corn for ornamentation. Glen Lake Schools offers its Thanksgiving lunch on Nov. 19 to students and those parents who are able to attend. Peyerk’s La Fresca class prepares pies, stuffing, sauce. Peyerk said that students who help serve the meal, which also includes turkey, gravy and rolls, “get a lunch.”