Nutritious Fare in a Pandemic

When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in March and The Northwest School shifted to remote learning, Director of Dining Services Bethany Fong and her team gathered to contemplate how they could still serve the school community. They looked at daily lunches, meal kits, and CSA-like boxes before settling on the House Specialty Program, a new staple of the Northwest School dining experience.

“In the letter home this summer, we talked about continuity, agility, and care for the community as we proceed through the pandemic,” says Bethany. “Those three points apply to the House Specialty Program. How are we caring for our faculty, community, and the farmers we purchase from? How are we agile, rethinking, and pivoting? How are we providing continuity? Because the Dining Program is one of the biggest parts of everyday Northwest life.” 

Once a week, the dining room faculty provide pre-made meals for five, featuring Northwest School favorites such as yakisoba and curry. Community members come to the school to pick up the meals or at one of six locations around the area.
From the very beginning, it was clear to Bethany that the pandemic would hit the food service industry disproportionately harder than other job sectors.

“There were people on my team who were unsure if they were going to have jobs or not,” says Bethany. “In thinking about the big impact COVID has had on society and the inequities it brought to the table, it is important to recognize that The Northwest School is not immune to any of that.”

Bethany has been able to recreate much of the Dining Program values in the House Specialty Program. From a food standpoint, she is still committed to sourcing as many local ingredients as possible. All the meal kits come in compostable packaging. 

“The themes of having meaningful conversations, connecting, and sharing ideas, and hoping that families can use the dinner to take a pause, all of that is what we do daily at lunch,” says Bethany. “Everything from how we designed the packaging to how we are delivering reflects our values as a program.”

Recognizing that Northwest School families live all over the Seattle area, the dining services faculty load up a Northwest School bus each day of the week to deliver meals to families in Queen Anne, University Village, West Seattle, Crown Hill, Columbia City, and Bellevue.

A weekly newsletter echoes the daily information students normally see on the chalkboard while waiting in line at lunch. The newsletter includes information about the meal, where the ingredients come from, and other topics, as well as a “table-talk question” that comes from the chalkboard’s question-of-the-day.

The program has been very successful but not without its challenges. On top of continuing to provide meals for the students living in the dorm, Bethany’s staff had to increase their work load from cooking for 2,500 people per week last year to 4,000 per week this year. The increase in quantity reflects the expanded portion sizes for each serving. These larger portions make up for the fact that students no longer have access to soups, an expansive salad bar, or the WOW-butter sandwich station.

Challenges aside, Bethany and her team are pleased that families are enjoying the lunch experience of their students. 

“Before, lunch was something only students and faculty could experience, but now families are included in this tradition that we have with our dining program,” says Bethany. “It is not often families get to be a part of the day-to-day life of the school.”