Julie Holbrook converts school menus, connects with farms
By Tim Rowland
It didn’t make the nightly news, but to Julie Holbrook that made it no less an atrocity. A half-dozen commercial pizzas in grease-stained boxes had shown up in one of her school cafeterias, along with two jugs of Coke.
The new soccer coach who purchased them didn’t know. He was just trying to ingratiate himself to his young charges. No one had told him that in the seven North Country school districts with 4,000 students under Holbrook’s watch, sugar and processed foods are as welcome as a snapping turtle in a nursery.
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Holbrook can laugh about it now — almost. She had been trying to steer the kids away from the pizza to the colorful fresh vegetables on her salad bar, but there were no takers. It was the beginning of the school year and “they didn’t know to be afraid of me,” she said with a hint of disappointment. Ruffling feathers is part of her job.
Holbrook, 57, a resident of Keene, is shared food service director for the Champlain Valley Educational Services BOCES, which supports 16 school districts in Clinton and Essex counties. She and her supporters and colleagues are intent on doing nothing less than changing the way American children are fed in school, which in their view is commonly nothing short of a crime.
Holbrook replaces the school cafeteria’s Pop Tarts, chocolate doughnuts and Doritos with a cornucopia of healthy fruits, vegetables, meats, yogurts, eggs, cheese and other nutrient-dense products, many grown within a few miles of the kitchens where they are prepared.
Gone are sheet pans of processed, frozen pizzas and heat-and-serve chicken nuggets. In their place are homemade shepherd’s pie and fajitas, sauces made from scratch, salad bars and warm, freshly baked rolls.
In 15 years working with school breakfasts and lunches, she’s proven healthy food is cheaper for taxpayers, helps local farmers and boosts student performance. She believes in the power of food over pharmaceuticals, that many behavioral and learning disorders are the product not of bad brain functions, but of bad eating.
Still, not everyone wants to hear it.
“It’s so logical and so simple,” she said. “But it seems extreme to a lot of people.”
Holbrook has been fought at nearly every turn: by cafeteria workers who would rather hand out packaged foods than cook (one reported Holbrook to health inspectors for using “dangerous” fresh eggs); by administrators who believe the numbers are too good to be true; by moms who feel their parenting skills are being impugned; and even by teachers with a closet addiction to chocolate milk.
She’s heard all the arguments against wholesome food in schools: Kids won’t eat it, administrators can’t afford it and the big one, “But we’ve always done it this way.”
In response, Holbrook has teacher testimonials of more attentive students, thick files of budget data demonstrating the cost savings and a following of believers, from local farmers who know the value of good food to coaches looking for top performance out of their athletes.
She’s managed it with a unique skill set developed over a career that includes stints in restaurants and business offices. Her work ethic was hardened on a downstate dairy farm where the 300 head of cattle required seven-day-a-week attention. “I did a lot of haying and picked a lot of corn,” she said. “That’s why I have a hard time taking a day off.”
After experiencing serious health problems in her early 20s, Holbrook changed her prognosis by changing her diet. “I know how good you can feel if you eat right,” she said.
But kids aren’t always going to know that. Her two biological children, Sadie and Austin, would escape the world of tofu and avocado stir fries to other kids’ homes, where they “would eat up all their snack bars,” Holbrook said. But her own family demonstrates that education and firm principles can make an impression — Sadie is food services manager for Moriah Central Schools, and Austin is studying agriculture.
In 2007, Holbrook and a group of Keene mothers were concerned that school cafeterias were undermining efforts to feed their children wholesome foods. They marched on the school board, demanding change.
At that same time, the job of food service manager was coming open, and Keene Central had a farm-friendly superintendent in Cynthia Ford-Johnston who had the fortitude to hand the position to a young mother with some radical views of how children should be fed.
Holbrook was simultaneously elated and terrified. All she had to do was wean students off their addiction to sugar and simple carbs, teach cafeteria workers how to cook from scratch, contain costs and then hope students would eat the strange new fare.
To save money, Holbrook abolished plastic plates, utensils and drinking straws that were costing tens of thousands of dollars a year. With the savings she hired a dishwasher and purchased the ingredients of scratch cooking: butter, eggs, flour, ground beef, fresh fruits and vegetables. With her husband, Mike, she planted an herb and vegetable garden at the school, introducing students to fragrances they had never imagined: rosemary, garlic, lavender and thyme.
She was not above playing dirty. As her staff popped pans of dough into the ovens, she closed the exhaust fans to the outdoors so the smell of freshly baked bread wafted through the hallways. Butternut squash slipped into the black bean “brownies.”
There were bumps in the road, to be sure, but the results were positive. Children, in time, stopped missing their sugar fix. Teachers, Holbrook said, began to report that students were calmer, better behaved and more able to do their work. And, crucially, healthy food saved money.
Administrators were impressed that a homemade Alfredo sauce cost a third of its processed counterpart, and that an Adirondack school system could save $81,000 a year just by making pizza from scratch. Her methods allow for usable leftovers: uneaten peppers from the salad bar go into the next day’s fajitas. By contrast, “You can’t make anything out of a leftover chicken nugget,” Holbrook said.
By 2015, Holbrook had proved her case enough. Champlain Valley Educational Services in Plattsburgh hired her to oversee food services for seven of its 16 districts.
At her back is a team of like-minded interests that have made the job easier. The Adirondack and Cloudsplitter foundations have offered funding. Farms like Ben Wever and Juniper Hill sold her districts meat and produce at discount. The Cornell Cooperative Extension service in Essex County has developed an interactive farm-to-school program that operates on twin fronts. One connects local producers with school cafeterias, providing access to fresh tomatoes for sauce, carrots, peppers and greens for the salad bar, potatoes for mashing and whole grains for homemade granola.
On the second front, Meghan Dohman, CCE’s farm to institution educator, takes kids on field trips to local farms, where they are astounded by the rich color of a freshly pulled beet. “They want to go back (to the cafeteria) and see what it tastes like,” she said.
“A lot of these kids have never seen a plum before,” said K’Cee Leavine, Holbrook’s assistant at CVES. Leavine has a degree in nutrition, a love of scratch cooking and a talent for filtering some of Holbrook’s riper comments about the state of America’s food industry.
Among Holbrook’s targets are Big Agriculture and Big Pharma and their congressional enablers who, in May, to pick one example, introduced legislation to force schools to serve sugary chocolate milk.
CVES Assistant Superintendent Eric Bell applauds Holbrook. To him, feeding children healthy food is a moral obligation. His epiphany occurred in high school when a coach told him he needed to lose weight and shape up. The key to better health, his coach said, was to “stop eating cafeteria food.”
Sugar and simple carbs have led to a virtual epidemic of child obesity, but at the same time leave kids feeling hungry, Bell said. Because they never feel full (state law prohibits second helpings), many kids and teachers bring a more filling lunch from home.
This creates a structural problem for cafeterias, which depend on per-meal government reimbursements to fund operations. The numbers show, however, that schools serving healthy food attract more customers.
In her first 10 months managing the Plattsburgh Central School cafeteria, Holbrook served an additional 40,000 breakfasts and 76,000 lunches and improved the cafeteria budget by a net $300,000. “Kids innately know when they’re not getting enough of the right food,” Holbrook said.
Still, not all districts have bought in. As regimes change, however, Leavine believes the transition will become inevitable, out of cost alone. “School districts won’t be able to afford not to,” she said.
She and Holbrook have taken their model to state conferences, doing missionary work among a whole new set of cautious administrators. As has been the case locally, school leaders don’t think it’s possible, until they see with their own eyes that it is.
But Holbrook has had tougher crowds. She recalled a student early on who broke down in tears at the thought of eating unprocessed food. “I told him, just take a bite; just put a little on your tongue.”
Years later, Holbrook said she saw him again, now as a graduating high school student: “He came up to me and said, ‘Julie, I have a salad every day.’”
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