No More Yucky Cafeteria Food at Westtown School

Map in dining room showing farms that supply the school's food
Map in dining room showing farms that supply the school's food

by Judy Asselin, Westtown School

The lunch table conversation one day in Westtown Middle School turns to where our food comes from, and as Sustainability Coordinator, I jump in. “Well,” I say in that teachable-moment voice, “All our food originates in the soil, from plants.”

“Yuck. I do not eat dirt, and I hate vegetables!” one boy blurts out. “I eat mostly hamburgers.”

“Well, what do you think COWS eat?!” quips a classmate.

Education about food won’t come a moment too soon in a culture that has forgotten the simple truth captured by Tom Brown, legendary Westtown teacher: “Let us remember that we owe our existence to four inches of top soil and the fact that it rains.”

At Westtown, we have set out to make the dining experience an extension of the classroom. The textbook? What’s on the plate.

Expanding on a 200-year-plus tradition of growing food on campus, Westtown partnered with St. Andrews School in Middletown, DE and PAISBOA (PA Independent Schools Business Officers Association) in 2009 to create the Farm-to-School Initiative. The goal: make it easier for independent schools to buy local food for their dining halls. Working hand in hand with The Common Market in Philadelphia (, which distributes food from over 100 area farmers to institutions in the Delaware Valley, this program now includes 18 independent schools, ordering fresh seasonal food at good prices.

Chalkboard in dining room showing farms that supply the school's food
Chalkboard in dining room showing farms that supply the school's food

The Common Market delivers weekly to participating schools, provides promotional posters and signs for use in school dining halls, and even offers recipes for the seasonal “vegetable du jour.” (What to do with that case of kale? Kale smoothies, anyone?) Participating schools swap recipes and curricular ideas via our PAISBOA Farm-to-School e-book.

We also serve vegetables grown on our 1.5-acre school garden and Pete’s Produce Farm right on school property, but we now order products from other farms: yogurt, meat, poultry, cheese, fruit and vegetables of all kinds. Local foods are labeled on the salad and hot bars, and signage in the dining room lists the area farms that feed us. Napkin holders on the tables give composting directions for food left-overs (which feed the chickens on the campus farm), and provide topics for conversation: how does compost sequester carbon in the soil? How are energy costs reduced by eating locally?

Local and/or organic food purchases increased six-fold over the past four years, now representing 40% of all fresh produce purchased, and 13% of the total food budget. The goal is to keep moving in this direction. The school now offers local organic yogurt and Westtown-made granola daily, brewed decaf tea and milk from a PA dairy in our steel “cow.”

This year the locally-sourced menu has extended to the Lower School three-day-a-week lunch program. We have increased offerings such as tossed salad, Coleman’s chicken tenders, organic all-beef hot dogs, organic yogurt, Westtown-made bread and local cheddar grilled cheese sandwiches, all served family style and packaging/trash free.

“Once on the local food bandwagon, it’s impossible to go back to the same-old-same-old processed cafeteria food,” says Beth Pellegrino, Director of Westtown’s dining hall. Our kitchen staff relishes the challenge of creating meals with fresh ingredients, and takes pride in a better end product. Better taste, more nutrition, less packaging and food waste, lower cost, better utilization of dining hall labor – what’s not to like?