Lunch Is Served

WHEN A MARIN Catholic High School social studies teacher and her students aimed to get their school Fair Trade certified, they knew they had to talk to José.

Chef José Rodriguez, that is — one of two employees of Epicurean Group who work at the school running its popular Cafe Wildcat. In order to get the certification, the school would need to sell Fair Trade Certified products, which must be produced under safe labor conditions and purchased from producers at fair prices. This requirement would have been difficult to meet if the Kentfield school had a mass-market lunch vendor, says Lynn Maloney, the teacher who organized the push.

“One hundred percent it wouldn’t have been possible without Epicurean,” Maloney says. “Working with José and the owners of Epicurean made the certification happen. Epicurean believes in organic, sustainable food, so Fair Trade worked with their mission as well.”

Now, Cafe Wildcat sells a number of Fair Trade products provided by Epicurean, some that had already been part of the company’s repertoire and some new ones brought in just for Marin Catholic. “They already used Fair Trade coffee and tea, but they found Guittard chocolate and Fair Trade honey,” Maloney says.

Marin Catholic was the first school in the county to become Fair Trade Certified, but it’s far from the only independent school here to turn to a local vendor for lunches that look and taste nothing like what was slopped on the cafeteria trays of past generations.

These vendors focus on freshness, local ingredients and often organic ones. Saint Hilary and Mill Valley’s Greenwood School get their organic lunches from renowned local grocer Good Earth Natural Foods. The lunches are so good, says Greenwood Director of Admissions Betsy Anderson, that the staff once transferred them to Le Creuset dishes and served them buffet-style to parents at an event.

“The parents all thought it was catered gourmet,” says Anderson, who like other staff members at Greenwood enjoys “hot lunch” herself daily.

School Foodies, based in Alameda, delivers hormone-free meat and dairy and largely local produce to Mark Day School, Montessori de Terra Linda, and Marin Christian Academy. Many meals can be upgraded to organic meat or chicken for an extra dollar, says the owner and president Dennis King, who grew up helping his parents with their school lunch business in San Francisco. School Foodies cooks in a central kitchen and delivers meals hot, which is a must for many independent schools, King says.

“Very few private schools have a full-blown kitchen,” he explains. “The older Catholic schools do, but they usually don’t have the population or staff to warrant staffing those kitchens anymore.”

With today’s lunch caterers, students or parents can typically choose from a number of entrees and order online, a far cry from the mystery meat of cafeterias past. Furthermore, school caterers respond to student feedback — and not by telling them to love it or lump it. “The staff (at Epicurean) checks in and makes adjustments to the food that the students ask for. I think overall the students are very pleased,” Maloney says.