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The Wholesome Chef

Jim Rowan, food service director of two northwest school districts, on feeding students quality meals

Northern California native Jim Rowan is passionate about food. A self-taught chef, Rowan had his own catering business, cooked in resorts and hotels, and was a private chef before becoming culinary director at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash. But in July 2008, Rowan made the switch from higher ed to K12. He is now the food service director at Astoria (Ore.) School District and Naselle-Grays River Valley (Wash.) School District, which use Chartwells as their food service provider. Rowan serves fruits and vegetables regularly, buys local foods from Oregon and Washington farmers, uses chicken raised without antibiotics, and makes three to six meals per month from scratch. In this regard Rowan is not so different from other Chartwells food service directors, says Caroline Nelson, a company spokeswoman, but his ideas and the local interests work well together. “Like many other food service directors, Jim came to us with a passion for sustainable living and had been using these practices before they were popular,” Nelson says. “His passion for sustainability matched with teaching students how to use these practices makes him a winning combination.”


What inspired you to switch from college food service to K12?

It was a challenge. Every bit of it is different. In K12, it’s about cents per plate as opposed to dollars per plate in higher education. Of course, coming out of restaurants and hotels, everything is retail priced. Here you are set with a price you need to work with and work backwards. You work with the best products you can get and the most local you can get. The cost of food is a challenge, and it’s a great exercise to put it all together on a regular basis.

And having two children myself, one preteen and a teenager, it fit in to where I needed to be.

What is your philosophy on food?

My philosophy is really about serving balanced meals and teaching students to eat in a balanced manner. Chartwells provides training and great tools for our food service directors, chefs and cooks to accomplish this. I believe it is our duty to not only feed our students with the healthiest food but to educate them on how it is grown and how far it can travel to reach that lunch line.

Tell us more about your dishes. Are students enjoying them?

In some cases, I share the recipes with the students. I will get a parent every now and then, saying, “My son had this for lunch and I’m curious—what was that?” They are interested.

In March, it was Mediterranean focus month and we made chicken cacciatore and turkey and ham paella, and we modified what is traditionally found in such dishes. For example, the chicken cacciatore dish we make is a lot more basic than what you’d normally see. The typical recipe uses whole breast of chicken, noodles, parmesan cheese. In our case, we use the commodity-diced chicken and make it more of a casserole style, using commodity protein. You save a huge percentage.

And you use what’s available. I would not substitute tomatoes, for example—that’s not something you put in a recipe unless you live in Florida or San Diego. I wouldn’t include an item on the menu that is out of season, with less flavor, and has traveled halfway across the world. Chartwells stresses eating seasonally and locally. This approach reduces our carbon footprint and ensures good quality local food.

I read the crop reports weekly. You need to know what’s available in your region and keep your staff informed.

I’d like to see and use more protein-rich grains or plant protein, like beans, legumes, tofu or quinoa, which has a huge amount of protein. A principle highly recommended is to reduce our reliance on animal protein and to increase our intake of plant-based protein. Most medical and nutrition experts agree that we should reduce our intake of processed foods as well as foods that are high in saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and added sugars.

How do you prepare your meals?

We make anywhere from three and six scratch meals a month. Of course, by scratch I mean we’re still using canned sauce, but yes, they are not just coming out of a box to the tray. It’s more about kids looking for homestyle food. Our students are becoming much more involved, and they want to know where their food is coming from—how it’s processed and how it’s grown. That’s where my focus is—having informed staff members and informing myself. The movement really began with Alice Waters (the executive chef who started the “edible schoolyard” movement and who believes in eating high quality foods that are in season). She is the most well known of those promoting healthy food for schools, but Chartwells has long been a proponent, as well as many others.

How are you providing fresh, healthy foods in the district, given the assumed high costs and occasional resistance from kids?

It’s not the old days of serving French fries and pizza on every tray line every day. We still have to provide those things. If we don’t, the students quit. What we are doing is that we always have fresh fruit or a decent canned fruit, and offer vegetables. We work on balancing quality, nutrition and student preference. It is important for new foods to be familiar, and therefore we approach modifying their favorites first and then slowly introduce new items, such as quinoa.

For example, a staple food like pizza is served with low fat cheese on whole grain crust while chicken nuggets are baked using whole grain breading. The whole grain movement has been slow, but producers like Tyson and Pilgrim’s Pride are providing some new whole grain choices that help provide a more balanced diet. The cost is coming down quickly.

Students sometimes think that healthy means bad taste. To deal with this we do taste testing and sampling of new foods so they don’t need to pay for an entire meal; change items that students don’t feel as strongly about, like serving brown rice instead of white, or a whole grain roll instead of white; and introduce healthy items that are totally new so there are no preconceptions about what it’s supposed to look and taste like.

Where do your foods come from?

We try to use regionally local produce at all times. Astoria is 110 miles northwest of Portland, and it’s not the best growing season. Local can be 200 miles away, from central Oregon to southwest Washington. We work with providers who give us lists of foods available at any one time. It is local 100 percent for growing months like September and October. Apples and pears are very prevalent. If local foods are not available, then we will look to Oregon packaged and produced first and then regionally packaged and produced.

We are now working on a school garden program this summer at Astoria High School and greening programs, with the idea that if students would learn how to plant foods and taste them when they come right out of the ground they would be more interested. We are moving in that direction. And we are working to get hothouses on school grounds to get mixed and fresh salad greens on school lunch lines next fall.

You testified this spring on Oregon House bill 2800, which would build on the state’s existing Farm to School program. What was this for?

Oregon is one of the states that offers no extra compensation toward any meal program, no subsidy. Under the bill in the House, if you buy Oregon grown, produced and packaged food and serve it in school breakfast and lunch, it asks the state to add seven cents for each breakfast and 15 cents for lunch. It’s more money for us to serve more local foods. And we are not a four-season growing state. Some of the local producers, like Bob’s Red Mill whole grain store in Portland and Truitt Brothers in Salem, which produce vegetarian chili, fruits, vegetables and soups, are a bit cost-prohibitive. And we are a little tight on pricing. With that extra state money we would be able to work with them and provide those foods to the students.

What is your advice to other districts wanting to provide the same wholesome foods?

My biggest thing when I talk to people is I tell them to start small. Remember that every forest starts with one seed, and if we can plant the seed of healthy eating in one child a day, we can make a difference. Work on finding whatever is local to you and focus on it—one item. If you’re in the middle of 10,000 miles of cornfields, find something that is healthy. Look for that one thing.

And the feedback from kids? They say, “Wow, what was that? We really like that. Can you make it again?” Having kids ask for any healthy food again is always a good thing.