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Community Story

Eastern Washington Schools Make Meals Healthier

Fewer students at risk for obesity

School Meals Washington


February 20th, 2020


You may know LJ Klinkenberg, the director/executive chef for Cheney Public Schools, as his TV personality “LJ Klink,” chef and winner of Food Network’s Extreme Chef competition (Ice House episode).

But behind LJ’s gregarious personality lies a man who cares deeply about his hometown of Cheney, Washington—particularly about the over 5,000 kids he feeds every day. LJ says his job is hard—“the hardest job I’ve ever had in my 25-year career”—but also very personal and rewarding. One third of kids in eastern Washington are overweight or have obesity,1 putting them at risk for chronic disease, and many are from low-income families (in some schools in the region nearly all students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch). Research shows that kids who experience poverty within the first two years of life are nearly twice as likely to have obesity by age 15.2

This talented chef, who once worked in restaurants across the country and built a culinary school in central Illinois, now heads up Cheney School District’s food service department, where he oversees 32 employees at 11 sites and eight cooking kitchens in eastern Washington. LJ originally took the position after his daughter, who was in kindergarten at the time, told him that a lot of kids in her school came there hungry. He visited her school and was motivated to make a difference.

Starting the Scratch Cooking Program

That motivation led LJ to become a consultant to Empire Health Foundation (EHF), a health foundation that is working to transform health and advance health equity in eastern Washington.

Working hand-in-hand with Laura Martin, EHF’s senior program associate, LJ pounded the pavement throughout eastern Washington in a quest to not only help food service departments systematize and streamline their processes, but ultimately figure out: Is scratch cooking possible in a school kitchen? And could it positively impact the health of kids?

"Tackling childhood obesity was our first strategic initiative as an organization. And what was particularly exciting, while challenging at times, was the opportunity to design a program from the ground up and hand-in-hand with our school district partners, fine-tuning and adjusting along the way to incorporate a framework that meets the true needs of today’s school food systems."

Laura Martin, senior program associate at Empire Health Foundation

Historically, well after food and food service was industrialized, school food kitchens across the country had been ratcheted down to bare bones—cooks were given basic equipment, space, storage and refrigeration to simply plate and heat meals made elsewhere. Many meals were heavily processed, offering little nutritional value to kids.

Empire Health Foundation saw potential for health impact and a new challenge right before their eyes. What kind of impact on the health of kids could be realized by partnering with school systems to transition their school meal programs to menus that offered fresh, healthy options? Research supported and fueled the foundation’s initial interest. Studies show up to half of a child’s daily calorie intake occurs during the school day and healthy food intake has been linked to improved health outcomes.

Commitment and Creativity Bring Transformation

Nine school years since first launching the project, Laura and LJ execute a three-part program: a healthy menu, supported with smart marketing and nutrition education.

Drawing from his restaurant experience, LJ has hired an experienced and dedicated workforce within the district that shares his passion for creativity and a deep belief that kids deserve healthy food.

"My staff doesn’t just dish out food. They talk to the kids and ask, ‘What do you like? What don’t you like? Tell me more about that.’ We build relationships with our students so that we can understand their preferences and help them develop healthy eating habits."

LJ Klinkenberg

“We get to know our students’ cultures. We make a gorgeous Thai golden curry without dairy. Now that won’t work at all schools, but some, based on demographics, it does. You just have to get to know your customer.”

He explains that he and his staff “don’t see our children as a federal dollar. They are our guests.”

He delights in a positive guest experience, just like anyone in the hospitality industry. “I love Funky Food Fridays. I bring in all the obscure vegetables for students and families to taste—celeriac root, daikon radish, jicama, golden kiwi…I love seeing kids try new foods that they weren’t sure they’d like, and they do. They are getting an understanding of what good food actually is!”

For LJ, giving Cheney’s students choice is a key to the success of the program. If a student goes home and tells her parent, ‘there is no food to eat,’ because she is not accustomed yet to the food available, the program won’t succeed. And I’ll hear from the parent!” LJ explained that he’ll provide 15 options, and tell the kids they only have to choose three, for example. Then the student has the power to make their own healthy choice.

“I’ll do whatever it takes.” His creativity is endless. “All kids like ranch dressing, right? If you put vegetables in ranch, kids will eat them. But ranch is full of sodium and processed ingredients—we can’t serve that. So, I created a low-fat, low-sodium, big flavor (of garlic and onion powder) alternative. It’s a little thinner than the commercial dressing, but kids can’t get enough of it at the salad bar! Kids also love the chicken and waffles, so now it’s gluten-free, whole muscle and whole grain–and they still love it.”

Since launching the program in 2011, Empire Health Foundation has worked with partner school districts like Cheney to collect students’ height and weight data each fall and spring, and they use that data to calculate students’ body mass index (BMI), which is a common measure used to assess overweight and obesity. The data has helped them track rates over time and measure the overall health impact of the program.

By year five of the scratch cooking program they were seeing measurable health impacts. The average BMI among K-5 students in the Cheney School District who had been overweight or had obesity dropped 4.5%, a statistically significant decline.3  The change was very encouraging and helped make the case for continuing and expanding the program. Equally as encouraging, food waste had decreased across the district and students have begun to embrace the new healthier menu.

State Support Helps Boost Scale

Cheney’s kids aren’t the only ones reaping the benefits of healthy scratch cooking in schools. Empire Health is in its ninth year of helping Eastern Washington’s school districts cook from scratch and eliminate processed food. To date, they and their partners at NorthEast Washington Educational Service District 101 (NEWESD101) have transitioned the school meal programs of 26 of the 39 school districts across the region. Holding true to their mission of health equity, the foundation’s partner districts range from rural districts serving fewer than 100 kids to Spokane Public Schools, the second largest district in Washington state, which serves some of the highest-need families and students in the region. All combined, Empire Health’s partner districts comprise 61% of the region’s school-age children, serving 7 million scratch-cooked meals annually to nearly 60,000 students.

Learning from LJ’s investment in innovative food service staff, Empire Health Foundation has prioritized workforce development. They built a culinary academy to train food service staff from across the region how to cook from scratch. No matter how large or small a school kitchen is—even those with only warming ovens—LJ and Laura will tap into their creativity to make scratch cooking possible by reconfiguring the kitchen. The foundation offers nutrition education and marketing support to help kids establish habits for healthy eating. They also help districts make changes to their wellness policies so they reflect the latest nutrition science and meet or exceed federal school nutrition standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“We couldn’t provide this level of support without the support of the state,” says Laura. “Washington state has provided school districts a tremendous opportunity to invest in new equipment that makes scratch cooking possible.”

Rep. Marcus Riccelli is on the state’s health and wellness committee and a huge proponent of healthy school food. With his help, the state passed a capital funding law in 2018, which set aside $32 million over 10 years for school districts to apply for nutrition and kitchen equipment grants.

By maximizing his district’s Department of Defense (DOD) and commodities spending and keeping a close eye on labor costs,  LJ has Cheney School District operating in the black—reinvesting those funds in new kitchen equipment and training for staff.

This kind of region-wide change has been a giant lesson in “classical change management,” for districts, staff, students and families. LJ and Laura believe, and they now have the data to prove it, that their 2011 pilot project is programmatically and financially sustainable, and, most importantly, it’s “changing lives one school lunch at a time.”

Footnotes: [1] Empire Health Foundation , [2] Empire Health Foundation , [3] Empire Health Foundation

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