Lessons in fresh, healthful fare at school in Tarrytown
Addie Broyles, Relish Austin
Jeremy Barnwell was a chicken farmer before he was a school cook.
The 34-year-old Austinite was selling eggs and meat at local farmers markets and teaching poultry processing classes with his friend Jesse Griffiths of Dai Due Supper Club when he found out that the students at the private school where his wife teaches were paying $5 a day for processed, frozen-then-reheated lunches provided by company the Tarrytown school contracted with.
Barnwell was getting a crash course in culinary arts by helping Griffiths prepare food for his popular supper club dinners when he realized that he could serve better food for the same price.
Barnwell approached head of school Laura Steinbach. "I told her, ‘I'll keep the price exactly the same, but the quality of the food will be drastically better,'" he says. "I didn't know if I could pull it off, but I knew I could get close."
Steinbach had been looking for a new lunch provider. "We had something that was working by some people's standards, but it wasn't up to our standards," she says. "A sign of success of a lunch program is if the teachers will eat it," she says, and few staff would order the food being offered to the 80 or so students with dyslexia who are enrolled in the first-through-eighth-grade school.
So she took a chance on this farmer-turned-cook with a sand-colored beard and tightly wrapped dreadlocks, and every day last year, Barnwell served a meal made from scratch from mostly local and seasonal ingredients in the school's small kitchen.
He built up such a following that now about half the students order his lunches. "I make stuff that kids like, but just use better ingredients," he says.
On the second day of school last week, students lined up in the kitchen where Barnwell filled up trays with mashed potatoes, paprika-laced tempura-battered chicken strips and fruit salad made with local pears, apples and a neon-yellow heirloom melon.
Nine-year-old Ryan Lenhart, fresh off a summer full of baseball games and a trip to Cooperstown, N.Y., went back for seconds of the chicken tenders and mashed potatoes. "It tastes really fresh and it doesn't seem like stuff a school would give out," says Lenhart, who is in his first year at Rawson-Saunders School, which opened in 1998. "It seems like food you'd get at a restaurant."
Lunches where Barnwell serves pizzas made with flour from Richardson Farm north of Austin and hand-formed burgers are the most popular among students, but several teachers said they are looking forward to cooler weather so his soups — made with homemade stock — will start appearing on the menu again.
Each day, Barnwell also offers the option of an elaborate salad with greens, herbs, vegetables, feta cheese and chicken for students and teachers like Elizabeth Overholser who request it. "I almost licked the container clean, it was so good," she told him after her lunch break last week.
He does everything by hand, including the dishes and reusable plastic trays, which were paper plates and diposable cups when he started. Once a month, he sends out the menu, and parents circle which days they want their child to eat the school lunch. Pasta with homemade alfredo sauce. Spaghetti with tomato sauce or a stir fry with as many seasonal vegetables as he has on hand. Every week, he gets a bushel of produce delivered from Farmhouse Delivery and supplements with fruits and vegetables from local farmers markets and, occasionally, grocery stores.
Barnwell's one regret is that he hasn't found a way to serve sustainable or local meat. Having raised this kind of meat himself, he knows what it costs to do so, and he doesn't want to have to increase the price per lunch. Like other private schools in Texas, Rawson-Saunders does not receive federal money to help pay for students' lunches. In fact, Texas private schools are not required to provide a lunch option for students. Lunches at Austin public schools are federally subsidized and cost between $2.10 and $2.25, depending on the grade level.
"He could raise the prices, and parents would still pay for it," Steinbach says. Barnwell recalled one middle school student last year who told him, instead of gifts, all she wanted for her birthday was that her parents to pay for her to keep eating the school lunch.
Just like when he started farming, Barnwell had lofty goals and little experience when became a school cook a year ago. Hundreds of meals later, he's learned that presentation is key to getting kids to eat foods they might not otherwise try and that teaching them about where their food comes from helps, too.
Later this year, he hopes to go with the students on field trips to the farms from which he buys the food, and he also wants to start teaching cooking classes after school while Allison leads an after-school gardening program.
Cristina Mauro's son Dominic started Rawson-Saunders the same year that Barnwell did, and Mauro says having a high-quality food option was a huge bonus for going to the school. The food at his previous public elementary school wasn't horrible, she says, but it wasn't ideal.
Mauro says the freshly made food is well worth the cost. "He goes so far above the call of duty," she says. "Nobody's going to know if he hand-mixes the pizza crust, but he does it anyway."
Dominic has ended up liking Barnwell's food so much that Mauro says he's becoming a slightly less picky eater. Slightly. "Jeremy is a recovering picky eater, so he doesn't apply any pressure," she says. He's not preachy with the kids or the parents, so it's more fun for everyone.
"He jokingly calls himself the lunch lady," Mauro says. "He's the awesomest lunch lady ever."