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March 04, 2011

Julie Holbrook

Author: NYSUT Communications

When Julie Holbrook interviewed for the position of food service director at the Keene Central School, she confesses that she left before the interview was over but not before imparting her philosophy of fresh and healthy food. Even though there were other well qualified applicants with as much or more experience, Julie was hired because of her vision of a healthier future for the students at Keene Central School.

With education budget cuts, government commodities, and not much more than a dollar a day to feed the average student, no one is surprised by the fundamental lack of quality in school food. Although the negative outlook is well founded, what most people don’t know is that most and maybe all food service directors deeply care about food quality and are actively committed to making the quality and nutrition of their school food better. Some have made small contributions like implementing farm to school purchasing of produce from local farmers. Others, like Julie, have real long-term vision and make sweeping and lasting changes.

More from the garden

Keene Central School has had a school garden for many years but the shift from educational to more functional began with Julie. She and husband Mike worked to expand the garden size so that more vegetables, including Mike’s prized garlic, could be planted harvested and Incorporated into the school menus. “Mike and I hope to eventually grow most of our own food and I have read tons on this subject, so I guess that is where I get my expansion thoughts.” The educational opportunities have increased as well. Throughout the day you’ll find one of the k-12 classes drifting into the garden to plant seeds or to discuss plant science or ecology. Julie says, “Anything that I grow fits so well into the school and into the curriculum concept also. I have a firm belief that food has an effect on the students' ability to focus and to concentrate, positively and negatively. My hope is to teach that to all of the students eventually.”

More fruits and vegetables

When I visited Julie, the walk through the kitchen revealed mesclun greens and real blueberries. “Frozen blueberries are one of the good things that we can get from the government,” she says. It was still early in the summer so there was not much available from the garden but I had seen school classes filing in and out of the garden all day planting things like pumpkins, tomatoes and peas. Already there was kale, collards and strawberries. And there was the “Three Sisters” – a triangle planting of beans, squash and corn, a centuries old Native American staple that is perfect for any educational garden.

More Whole Grains

Julie made her mission not only to improve the freshness and overall quality of the food at Keene Central School but to also improve the nutrition content in the food as well. Julie bakes all the whole-wheat rolls and desserts and makes her own pizza dough, which is 60 percent whole-wheat flour. One of the most popular sellers in any school cafeteria is pizza. Besides the dough, Julie also makes from scratch her own pizza sauce for the pizzas. “I have a dream of never buying canned tomatoes again,” she says. On the day that I visited the blueberry cobbler was covered with a golden cobbler topping that was studded with large amount of oats. It was garnished with a small amount of real whipped cream.

When asked about the future, Julie said: "Personally I hope to find a piece of land that we can develop into an orchard and various other permaculture items; build a solar house with a greenhouse that functions as part of the kitchen and dining rooms; grow all of our food, or at least most of it; develop Mike's garlic on a scale of acres; and, when my mom wins the lottery that she has been "winning" for the last thirty years, write a book on how to grow a school after I have actually accomplished that! Yes, I dream high!

Professionally I would like to get much better at cooking and creating things that the kids love and that are good for them. I want to teach them more about nutrition and get the school greenhouse up and running year round so that I never have to buy greens again for the cafeteria. I would like to "take on" the state and federal government and their very low nutritional requirements for cafeteria food, streamline my job in some way so that I am not so crazed most of the year and someday teach the administration and teachers about how important nutrition is in regards to the children's' ability to learn. Basically create a respect for what we do that is visible. I’d like to create a solid, incredibly nutritious menu that I can share with other schools easily. And finally I’d like to see every student that graduates from our school NOT drinking soda or eating processed foods but instead having knowledge about how to grow their own food."

For more about Julie and school lunch initiatives you can also read the NYSUT United article "SRPs make nutrition a top priority" on NYSUT.org.