Two decades of good nutrition: Kent schools’ director of food services retires

The slogan over at the Kent School District’s central kitchen is “We serve education every day” and for the past 21 years Dan Johnson, the director of food and nutritional services, has lived it.

Dan Johnson

Dan Johnson

The slogan over at the Kent School District’s central kitchen is “We serve education every day” and for the past 21 years Dan Johnson, the director of food and nutritional services, has lived it.

“The charge, or the passion, if you will, is provide nutrition for kids that better prepares them for the classroom,” Johnson said Friday. “Kids can’t learn when they’re hungry.”

That’s business as usual for Johnson, as his staff of 170 prepares 21,000 meals a day for students across all 40 of Kent’s schools. But after more than two decades heading up the department and more than 53.82 million meals served (his estimate), Johnson is calling it a career.

As of Saturday morning, Johnson and his wife Beverly were headed to Southern California, to begin a retirement of travel in their motor home. But it’s a big difference from the career that had him focused on ensuring the students of the Kent School District had full bellies and were ready to learn.

“We don’t just feed bodies, we feed souls,” Johnson said Friday. “We truly are what we eat.”

Johnson’s love of food - and his career in it - stretches back to when he was a young man growing up in Kennewick, Wash. At age 12, Johnson said he and three of his friends started a 4H culinary club to explore their interest in cooking.

Johnson said he remembers mostly brown-bagging it to school in those days, but said a friend’s mother was head of the district’s food-services department and though after school he became a chef, conversations with her made him realize that working in the schools to keep students fed might be something he wanted to do with his life.

When she retired, he applied for the job, and the one-time Kennewick Chef of the Year headed into a new phase in his career that would last nearly 30 years. After six years on the other side of the mountains, Johnson moved to Kent.

In the more than two decades he has headed up Food Services, Johnson said things have changed quite a bit in the industry, with more of a focus today on making sure schools get the freshest ingredients. Good nutrition makes students lifelong learners, he said, not just in feeding their brains, but their bodies as well.

“All those things are important because we know nutrition has an impact as they’re growing up,” he said, adding that the industry has made “major strides” in ensuring students have healthier choices at school and hopefully through their lives. “Just like we do with our educational philosophy.”

Johnson said he drew on his experience as a chef and restaurant owner to try and make sure students are not only getting the nutrition they need, but also foods they enjoy.

“My strength in the past was culinary skills,” he said, adding that it’s still a passion, but one given new meaning from working at a school district.

“In essence, we provide two-thirds of their nutritional intake,” he said of students who get breakfast and lunch at the schools. “That’s a lot of influence on a lot of kids.”

To make sure the foods are something they like, Johnson said he has had to pay attention to what the students like and constantly modify the menu to match the district ever-changing demographics and increased diversity.

For example, not all cultures eat meat, so schools must offer vegetarian choices, along with the more traditional fare with meat ingredients.

“We try to get enough diversity in what we offer ... to try and provide something everybody will like,” Johnson said. “Our goal is to try and get as many kids as we can involved.”

Johnson said he is not always right in his choices, but the kids let him know. For example, one of the biggest surprises of his career, he said, was the response to made-to-order sandwiches, something he was “skeptical” about, but which continue to be a student favorite.

“Kids responded so well to be able to order that sandwich the way they wanted,” Johnson said, calling it his “biggest surprise and most consistently chosen product.”

His favorite cafeteria food, he admits, is the turkey gravy, which he said they prepare without fat, so it is not as decadent as many think when they hear the word “gravy.”

But the role of the kitchen staff is more than just being cooks to kids, which is why Johnson and his staff focus on the impact the staff can have on each kid. Johnson said it is important to him that his staff smiles because he knows the difference that can make in a student’s day.

“It brightens their day and lets them know someone cares,” he said.

Johnson said one of his favorite stories involving his food-service staff is that of a middle school student whom he said obviously came from an abusive home. The student, he said, often showed up for school dirty and disheveled and needing a good meal. Every day, he said his staff made sure that boy got a good meal and worked with the rest of the school staff to get him the clothing and care he need, becoming something of a surrogate family.

“I always remember that boy,” Johnson said. “That’s caring. That’s not uncommon for our staff to feel that way about our students.”

Because of that, Johnson said what he misses the most will be the staff and added that the last thing he will probably take down from the walls in his office will be the staff photo he keeps on the wall.

His advice to his successor, whomever it may be, is to keep a focus on the kids they serve.

“Remember to keep what’s important Job One, and that’s feeding the kids,” he said. “Do it passionately and remember your success in doing it comes from the people you work with.”

Johnson also says that while it’s easy to get stuck at a desk in the job he held for so many years, it’s important to get out every now and again and remind yourself what the job is really about.

“When I need to refresh, I just go to a school and remember what we’re here for,” he said. “We’re here to feed kids.”

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