School Lunch 2.0

A couple of weeks ago I got to be a lunch lady, something I never imagined would happen but always secretly hoped for. I got to do it for a day, but real lunch ladies and gentlemen do it day in and day out. I canʼt imagine how thankless their job is, especially in a high school where the majority of their customers are angst-ridden teenagers stuck within the four walls of high school. On a sunny day in June, weʼre serving hungry, stuck, angst-ridden teenagers.

I was invited by the Windham-Raymond school system to be the guest chef for a day at Windham High School, boasting a population of approximately 1,000 students. As the recipients of a large grant to improve school nutrition and incorporate more local products, their aim was to create buzz among their high school population–both students and staff–in order to increase participation in the school lunch program and improve profitability. This, in turn, would allow the school system to purchase more and better-quality products, which would improve health, sustain the demand for the meals, and perpetuate the cycle.

Erin down with Windham-Raymond school lunch workers

Sounds like a classic case of “if you build it, they will come,” right? So why is it so hard? Why are so many schools struggling to make ends meet? Why are they losing money? And WHY is the food quality so poor? I think itʼs simply a matter of habit: itʼs easy, mindless and often destructive. When the federal government decided that nutrition had to be quantified in order to earn federal school lunch money reimbursements in the 80s–and ketchup became a “fruit” as a result– we just didnʼt know any better. Or perhaps we just didnʼt care.

These days, things are different. We have a new culture of health-conscious parents, of collective worship of “foodie” celebrities and culinary adventurousness, of staff and students who are aware of the necessity for a diverse and healthy diet and of citizens whose wallets are strained by life in general. We’re left with an interesting conundrum. We want high quality, but we donʼt want to spend money. Weʼd prefer to not pack lunches in the morning, but we donʼt want that popcorn chicken inside our kids. We want the school to support good nutrition, but we donʼt trust the kids to be willing to eat it.

My lunch lady experience demonstrated that the tide is changing, and really, all of the confusion and mixed priorities are simply a result of all of us having little faith in the merits of change, even for changeʼs sake alone. When our school lunch programs are struggling financially to serve a substandard product, can someone honestly tell me exactly what weʼre risking if we change it up a little?

Windham High did just that. They looked around and said, “How can we change what we’ve got?” They partnered with Guiding Stars. I wasnʼt involved with their decision to go that route–in fact, I didnʼt know they were a Guiding Stars partner until after they asked me to work with them–but I have to think that someone, somewhere along the way said, “Well, if the kids are going to eat pizza every single day, we might as well help them figure out which beverage will best supplement their choice.” The Guiding Stars hanging on tags in the beverage cooler and on the snack rack and, eventually, on the menu items offered to the school population, began to mitigate some of the problems. I suspect their lunch participation rates began to climb as well.

It almost seems obvious, doesnʼt it?

1) Invest Money=Solid Foundation.
2) Good Food=Return Customers.
2) Quality Product=Higher Perceived Value.
3) Customer Care=Customer Loyalty.
4) Continued Customers=More Money.
5) Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

To add to the momentum that Windham High had, I brought my Fish Tacos with Mango Salsa and Chipotle Crema recipe. We served it with my Garlic-Lime Black Bean and Avocado Spread, an alternative to guacamole and an excellent whole food protein source. Some people suspected the kids would be hesitant to try the menu, and some certainly were. Others jumped at the opportunity to have something different. They didnʼt know it was healthy. At the end of the day, student participation in the special meal was higher than normal and last I knew, staff meal counts increased almost four-fold. Patrons appreciated a fresh and healthy meal, and the nutrition staff was pleased to learn a new healthy recipe with a high profit margin. For students and staff alike, the injection of new material into the lunch program opened everyoneʼs eyes to previously untapped possibilities.

I suspect it was a profitable day for Windham High, even with the fresh, organic and/or local ingredients generally eschewed due to their perceived cost. The nutrition staff seemed satisfied at the end of the day, having prepared an aesthetically-pleasing, fresh, popular and healthy meal. We witnessed a tasty and quality product creating interest in the meal and likely improving profitability.

Most compelling were the smiles that replaced the angst on those teenagersʼ faces, proving the golden rule once more: we built it, and they came. We werenʼt revolutionary: we were logical. And at the end of the day, we created the foundation for a new standard, hopefully one that will last. We learned that the right approach is to have faith in good food, believe in the staffʼs ability to excel at preparing it, assume the kids will desire to consume it and believe that the parents will pay for it. If we persist long enough, our outcome might just come to prove the cliché.

Fish Tacos with Mango Salsa

Print this recipe | Get the full nutrition facts

These delicious fish tacos are a team favorite here at Guiding Stars. They’re easy to make and a wonderful, light summer’s meal.

Tip: Adobe peppers in chipotle sauce can usually be found, canned, in the Mexican food section of your local grocery store. If you’re not sure what counts as a flaky white fish, haddock and cod are great options, or ask your fishmonger.

I brought my Fish Tacos with Mango Salsa to Windham High School. We served it with my Garlic-Lime Black Bean and Avocado Spread, an alternative to guacamole. Some people suspected the kids would be hesitant to try the menu, and some certainly were. Others jumped at the opportunity to have something different. They didnʼt know it was healthy. At the end of the day, student participation in the special meal was higher than normal and last I knew, staff meal counts increased almost four-fold.Erin Dow, Expert Chef

Servings: 6 (280 G)

Prep Time: 30 min.


Mango Salsa:

  • 6 Tbsp. lime juice
  • 1 cup chopped mango
  • ½ cup diced bell pepper
  • ⅔ cup diced tomatoes
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • ¼ cup chopped green onions
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • ½ tsp. pepper
  • 1 tsp. olive oil

Fish Tacos:

  • 1½ lbs. flaky white fish
  • 1 Tbsp. chopped garlic
  • 3 Tbsp. lime juice
  • 6 (6") whole grain tortillas

Adobo Sauce:

  • 1 cup plain, fat-free Greek yogurt
  • ¼ cup chopped green onions
  • 1 Tbsp. lime juice
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • ½ tsp. pepper
  • 1 Tbsp. chopped chipotle in adobo sauce


  1. Preheat oven to 400ºF. While oven preheats, combine salsa ingredients and set aside.
  2. Place fish in a shallow baking pan and sprinkle with garlic and lime juice. Bake until fish reaches a minimum internal temperature of 145ºF (13-15 minutes).
  3. While fish bakes, wrap tortillas in foil and set aside. During the last few minutes of the fish baking, place the tortilla foil packet in the oven to warm (5 minutes).
  4. Combine sauce ingredients and set aside.
  5. Flake the fish into medium-sized chunks and serve on tortillas, topped with salsa and adobo sauce.
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AnnMarie Johnson
10 years ago

I hope you come to the Windham Primary School, next! My daughter
desperately wants to eat hot lunch, but we pack a lunch each day
since the school lunch just isn’t high quality enough for us. I’d
certainly let her buy hot lunch if this sort of thing were served!

Erin Dow
10 years ago

Thanks for your kind words. Contact your school nutrition manager
and voice your opinion; I’m sure we can figure out a way to add the
primary school to the list. We’ve already discussed a visit to the
middle school, so we may as well round the list off! Your district
has demonstrated a sincere commitment to improving things in
general. It’s amazing to watch it happen for your community and
many folks hope that the positive momentum will continue. Best,