Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Thanks for the memories! May 2010-March 2020

Get the local dirt in our northwest corner • Regrowing in 2023!

The Lady of Lunch: La Conner’s Georgia Johnson

Feb 1st, 2013 | Category: Community

by Jessamyn Tuttle

Georgia Johnson has spent most of her life working with food, and she considers her work at the La Conner School District most important. Manager of the district’s food services, she is known as a local leader in transforming school lunches, seeking to balance and prepare healthier meals, and use local ingredients.

Johnson made her way to La Conner in 1986. She served a formal apprenticeship in a French restaurant, then worked in various restaurants before coming to town to visit family. “I thought I was going to spend the summer and never left,” she said.

“This is part of what education’s about: thinking, being able to articulate, have a conversation about it,” said La Conner’s Food Services Manager Georgia Johnson, adding she tells students that she expects a lot of thinking. “I want there to be a dialogue. That’s huge for kids.” PHOTO BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

In 1991 she opened her own business, Georgia’s Catering and Baking. Two years later, Dr. Tim Bruce, the superintendent of the La Conner School District, contacted Johnson to see if she would take over the family/consumer science classes after the previous teacher took an emergency retirement. Johnson found she enjoyed teaching, received her credentials, and now teaches two elective culinary courses at the high school.

The kitchen manager retired a year or two later, and Bruce asked Johnson if she’d consider taking over the food services program as well, converting it to a more balanced, nutritious approach. She was selling her catering business at that time and took the job. She began learning about the Child Nutrition Program, attending workshops and conferences on school food service. “Everything was based on super low-cost, processed foods that were easy to do,” she said, but at the same time she was hearing about a huge groundswell in the community for the new farm to school programs, making food from scratch, and offering balanced meals. The administration was invested in making the change, so she got to work, using the USDA school food nutrition rules to renovate their menus. The school gets audited every couple of years, with attention to labels, recipes, menus and consumption records, but a specialist in Olympia helps her with the requirements.

One major change that she made was to the school’s beef supply. “Tim and I and the school board have strong feelings about certain things,” she said. “Beef is one of them.” Concerned over beef recalls and failing safeguards in the food system, they agreed that she should find a local source. She settled on Skagit Angus in Birdsview, owned by Frances Carstens. “I love her,” Johnson said. “I feel really wonderful about how she treats the animals, how she loves them.”

About nine cows each school year are processed at Keizer Meats in Lynden, and the only commodity beef the district continues to use is for the popular “teriyaki dippers.” Johnson has been seeking chicken from local farms as well but has not yet found a cost-effective source.

Vegetables are easier, although not available year-round. In the autumn the school is able to purchase apples, corn, carrots, kale, berries and squash from local farms. Most of that winds down by late November, apart from late-season apples and kale, but then it can be months before the first fresh greens are available. Johnson is hoping to start  more processing of fresh produce during the summers so the supply lasts through the winter.

When asked how they convince the kids to eat the healthier meals, Johnson said “it’s difficult.” Despite still featuring kid-friendly options like sloppy joes, chicken alfredo, burgers and pancakes, the new menu can seem intimidating. Some students just complain for the sake of raising a ruckus, but then there are kids with a real fear of food. “Those are the kids I listen to,” said Johnson. “They’re my bellwethers.” She talks to them, asks them to taste new things, and if they like it she knows it’s a keeper.

Sometimes it just takes awhile to get used to a new idea. When salt shakers were removed from the tables, “we went through several days of the horror of not having salt in front of you.” Corn dogs had been a frequent menu item, but Johnson switched to just offering them occasionally, which provoked cries of “you can’t do this to us!” from students. This year she has stopped making desserts, except for chocolate chip cookies or apple crumb every couple weeks. She tries to arrange complete meals, rather than offering a la carte items for students to pick and choose, but sometimes if there’s a request for a particular dessert she will work it in by taking out some other item. She has offered to add dessert in exchange for removing the option of chocolate milk, but the kids won’t give it up, and she respects their choice. “Food’s really important,” Johnson said. “I want kids to feel like they have a say.”

Johnson is also a writer, and keeps a blog at sweetcomice.wordpress.com where she writes about food, gardening, poetry, and what’s happening in her cooking classes and in the school kitchen (she makes a good case about chocolate milk being a dessert considering the amount of sugar included, specifically high fructose corn syrup). She’s hoping to get students involved with the blog as well.

“This is part of what education’s about: thinking, being able to articulate, have a conversation about it.” Johnson tells her students that she expects a lot of thinking. “I want there to be a dialogue. That’s huge for kids,” she added.

Other changes to the menu include whole-grain breads, real cheese, lots of fruit and vegetable options, and a well-stocked salad bar. “I like our salad bar to be voluptuous looking,” she said. If students take a little bit of this and a little bit of that, she feels, their bodies will thrive. “It’s all about right living, right eating.”

The biggest change has been going from “do we really have to do this” to “we know we have to do this, let’s figure out how.” Having the support of the community and school administration makes a huge difference. Frequently, parents approach Johnson and tell her that they never allowed their children to eat school lunches before, but now they do, or they ask to come eat lunch at the school with their child.

Despite the success of the program, Johnson still has lots of plans. “I’d like to do more education,” she said, “grass roots in the classroom.” She has tried making new foods for her culinary students, like honey dill carrots, then introducing the popular dishes into the school lunches. While she still relies on many old recipes from the school kitchen’s records, she’s hoping to create a wider repertoire of new, interesting recipes with the help of student input, and as she builds trust with the students, they are more likely to try new things.

“I feel I have lots to do here.”

To read about the La Conner School District’s food service guidelines, visit http://www.wafarmtoschool.org/Page/68/LaConner-School-District-Policies

Published in the February 2013 issue of Grow Northwest magazine

One Comment to “The Lady of Lunch: La Conner’s Georgia Johnson”

  1. Anita Scheftner says:

    Great news for La Connor school district! Good job..Jaime Oliver should be told about this..he started healthier food for schools on a larger scale in Great Britain. And of course, Food Revolution on television a season or two ago here in the U.S. Thank you for bringing this article to our attention!

Leave a Comment