Q&A with the Lunch Lady

As the food service director at Frankfort-Elberta Area and Benzie County Central Schools. Renee DeWindt is keeping kids healthy with farm-fresh faves like beef stroganoff casserole made with local beef, egg salad sandwiches made from organic eggs from down the road, and even slushies made with fresh fruit.

You’re the “lunch lady” for the whole county.

When Jennifer Granholm encouraged schools to merge certain departments, we started sharing a food service manager at Frankfort and Benzie; I report to both superintendents.

What challenges have you overcome?

Before I came in, the food was so bad at Frankfort, the kids boycotted. The former person in my position resigned. When I first came in these kid were fed up. So we did our own Survivor. We had two black boxes—one for what they wanted to vote off the menu and one for what they wanted to vote on the menu. I promised them the item that got the highest vote off we would never have again.

And that was?

Shrimp poppers. They’re mostly breading—not too much nutritional value, garbage-y things. I think we don’t give kids enough credit. The things they voted off were good things to vote off.

Greatest hits?

At Frankfort, the stir-fry. The big kettle works like a wok. We have chicken and vegetables like fresh celery, mushrooms and carrots, cooked with olive oil so there’s still a little crunch left, served with sweet and sour and teriyaki on the side. It’s really popular at the high school level.

But not with the elementary kids?

We’ve got to teach our little kids a different way of eating. You cannot have squash set up and it looks like baby food. We peel it, cut it in cubes, brush it with brown sugar and fresh butter.

How do you get picky kids to eat their veggies and fruits?

They love pizza, you’re not going to get away from that. Pizza day is every Wednesday at the elementary schools—one of the highest participation days. So when we have a captive audience, we have fresh fruit and the vegetable is fresh salad. And we make fruit slushies at Benzie Central. They’re all fruit.

Big scores since you’ve come on?

At Benzie Central High School, we’re getting rid of the junk food machines—contracts are up this year. I’ll extend the cafeteria hours after school to 4:30 and serve natural sorbets made in Benzonia by Hill Top Ice Cream, homemade soup and a half sandwich … Also, a grill donated by Paul Oliver Memorial Hospital Auxiliary for Betsie Valley Elementary is in the works. Betsie Valley is 81 percent free and reduced meals, so breakfast here is important. We’ll use the grill for homemade French toast and farm fresh eggs from Paul May’s organic farm in Frankfort.

Other farmers’ names on your menus?

Bardenhagen Farm for potatoes and grapes and ginger gold apples, Russell Ridge Farms for Gala apples and squash, and Walt Harris for asparagus. I don’t worry about tomato scares, because my tomatoes are from Zenner’s hydroponic farm. Randy Rice, a beef farmer on a 100-year-old grass-fed farm, supplies beef for homemade beef stew, goulash and chili, cheeseburger pie.

Any meals you wish you could do away with?

Bosco sticks [a brand of cheese-filled frozen breadsticks popular among institutional cafeterias] are considered a meal, believe it or not. They’re a favorite, but I can’t think of kids using those for energy for their school day, so we serve homemade chili with them.

Any of your own specialties that make the cut?

Goulash. The gal that worked in the kitchen warned me that the kids didn’t like it. I said, The kids never had my goulash. I put a little Worcestershire in it. It’s one the kids love. I make it with love.

For more school lunch success stories, check out Michigan Land Use Institute’s farm-to-cafeteria program at mlui.org.