On September 1, 2021

Cooking school meals from scratch with Gretchen Czaja

By Ethan Weinstein

“I wish people would not refer to it as a luxury to have access to healthy food,“ said Gretchen Czaja, Windsor Central’s school nutrition program director. She has made it her mission to bring local, whole foods into WCUUSD’s schools. Slowly but surely, she has done just that.

Almost 10 years ago, Czaja took over the kitchen at Woodstock Elementary (WES). At that time, her husband was starting the Cloudland Farm restaurant in Pomfret. Cloudland Farm raises Angus beef cattle, and Czaja had the idea of purchasing beef from Cloudland as a way of supporting the local economy and providing healthier, environmentally-conscious meat for Woodstock’s students. 

“You’re not serving ground beef all the time, so if you try to showcase it two times a month, and you’re really working with the students to educate them on this local food product, it works,” said Czaja. In the early days, She and colleagues did some additional fundraising to support the purchasing of local products and other farm-to-school educational programs.

After initial success, Czaja began purchasing some food for Woodstock Elementary from Black River Produce and Upper Valley Produce, two local distributors.

To showcase specific foods, kitchen staff organized monthly “taste test” events in the cafeteria, basing a day’s lunch around a single, local food item. 

“When you have a small program, you have the opportunity to then work with the kids at lunch to educate them and really be able to talk about the food product,” Czaja said. “I was able to work with classes individually, do cooking classes, gardening, so that was like my little starting point and inspiration for wanting to move the program through the district.”

Honing her model at WES, Czaja wanted to expand. Four years ago, WCUUSD put out a call for bids for for-profit food service companies to take over the district’s nutritional services. Czaja and her WES team decided they would put in a bid. Fearing a for-profit corporation would choose bargain over nutrition, Czaja helped put together a committee of community members to inform their bid. The community-backed bid was awarded the contract. 

“We took the Woodstock Elementary School model and basically magnified it or multiplied it and spread it around the district so that each kitchen, we were serving the same thing, the same recipes. All the kids are getting an equal opportunity to access healthy meals during the school day,” Czaja said.

There were issues initially. Ordering, storing, and working with 40 pounds of ground beef is not the same as 220 pounds. The kitchens in WCUUSD’s different schools had never before collaborated, so frequent communication was necessary to smooth out the kinks. Cooking for more students often changed cooking times, and distributing foods among member schools was a job in itself. 

But these were merely growing pains. The necessary, increased communication has strengthened the district’s food program. 

“What we’ve seen is that the more culinary trained individuals that we hire, the better we get, and the better our program gets, because that knowledge and skill then trickles through. Whereas in the past, people were just siloed in their own kitchens, and kind of teaching themselves. So we’ve been able to support each other,” said Czaja.

Soon, students developed their favorite meals centered around local products. Take the shepherd’s pie, for example: Czaja sources beef from Cloudland and local potatoes for the mash. There’s also WCUUSD’s mac & cheese, a dish built around cheese donated by Vermont Farmstead Cheese Company in South Woodstock. Or, perhaps the largest of the local meals, pancake day: King Arthur flour and maple syrup from Richard Family Farm in Hartland. Last May, WCUUSD served 1,000 pancake meals on a single day. 

Czaja is proud of what her team has accomplished since taking over the district’s food services four years ago. “I think families really rely on us and trust us to feed their children,” she said. “Some children that have always had bag-lunches, to switch over to getting a school meal is, I mean that’s powerful. … Our food service staff is dedicated to working with the students to help educate them.”

And while Czaja’s team has already proven that using local products is economical, her job will get easier this year. Last July, state legislators passed Act 67, a law that created a local food incentive for school districts. The more money spent on local foods, the more the district is reimbursed. WCUUSD plans to buy 15% local food, and will thus receive 15 cents back for every lunch served — a significant amount by any standard.

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