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Faces in the Crowd: The man behind the lunch counter

The Gilford School Districtís Food Service Director, John Lash (center), with his dedicated kitchen crew. (Jeff Ferland) (click for larger version)
October 12, 2011
Gilford School Food Service Director John Lash gave the school lunch program a complete make-over when he came on board, serving locally grown and produced products and making specials from scratch, instead of opening a can.

"The biggest change is, we're actually cooking," said Lash.

Lash came on board with the Gilford School District in May 2011, and spent the last few months of the school year observing and learning the strengths of each member of his kitchen staff. Over the summer, he formulated his plan to bring changes the lunch program.

Lash said he attended the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute. He said his culinary background is more in high-end restaurants, but while working at a country club, he decided he wanted to work with a younger clientele. He was working in a Pittsburgh, Pa. charter school for a while, but as a Massachusetts native, wanted to return home to New England.

He found the opening in Gilford, and moved to Concord.

"They don't send entrees back as much," laughed Lash, explaining the perks of serving young students instead of customers in a fine-dining setting.

Through his work, he realized eating habits are formed at a young age. Many children and teens eat school lunches, so Lash thought a healthier school lunch might help instil healthier eating habits at a young age.

"We want to serve them good, healthy food cooked properly," said Lash.

He used green-beans as an example. He said if they serve nothing but canned, mushy green-beans, young students may develop an idea that green-beans are bad.

"And those are bad," laughed Lash.

If they serve fresh green-beans, cooked properly, with that "delicious, fresh snap," added Lash, students might be more likely to eat vegetables with their meals.

"We make everything from scratch now," said Lash.

According to Lash, the only pre-made items on the menu are the chicken patties, which he said are high-quality white-meat and are baked, instead of deep-fried.

Lash also strives to incorporate locally grown produce whenever possible and economically feasible, and products such as locally made hamburgers from Miles Smith Farm in Loudon and vegan Devine Burgers from a company in Exeter.

He arranged contracts with Beans and Greens and Surowiec Farm in Sanborton. The farms will continue to supply produce through the winter in their greenhouses. In years to come, Lash can get a better idea of needs for the local produce, and give farmers a better idea of how much product they need. He said this will bring costs down and allow for the use of more local products.

"We also have a vegetarian and vegan population, and their needs have never really been addressed," said Lash, adding that that situation inspired him to research Devine Burgers.

"We don't use the can-opener much anymore," laughed Carol Messier, kitchen staff member.

With a higher level of entree quality, however, comes more work for the kitchen staff.

"It keeps us busy," said Lynn Rowson, referring to the added prep-work of making salads, for example, instead of simply opening a can of beans. "It's a great change. We're doing what we were hired to do."

According to the staff, they are making actual meals, which are closer to a family-style dinner than a school lunch.

Lash attributes the success of the program to the adaptability of his kitchen crew. According to Lash, his crew was very open to the changes he planned for the department.

He said his managers, Sharon Sargent at the GES kitchen and Pam Trendell in the GHS/GMS kitchen, were instrumental in instituting changes to the department.

Overall, Lash's staff, many of whom have been with the school for many years with the previous director, described Lash as a calm, cool presence in the kitchen.

"He's level headed," they agreed — a welcome, and sometimes rare, trait in a professional kitchen.

They said, at his core, Lash has the students in mind. They said that Lash will wander the cafeteria during meal time to get feedback from students and faculty.

According to his staff, Lash is constantly making sure everyone is happy with their meals. On several occasions, they said Lash has brought students milk that they may have forgotten, or extra sauce for their chicken burgers.

Lash is very open to feedback, and he said what he received so far has been helpful.

Within the budget, federal nutritional requirements and student reception, Lash likes the freedom the job brings.

"I have a blank slate," said Lash. "I can pretty much do whatever I want."

He brought diversity to the menu with entrees like chicken fricassee, black-bean quesadillas, Hungarian goulash and paella, a classic Spanish rice dish. He also kept with classics like home-made lasagna, meatloaf and, of-course, pizza day from the local Sal's Pizza.

They also serve all meals with fresh fruits and vegetables. Students also have the option of deli sandwiches, hamburgers or veggieburgers, chicken burgers, grilled cheese and salads available every day.

"Nobody goes hungry," said Lash. "If we serve something they don't like, they can get something else every day."

Lash has high hopes for his department. He takes pride in knowing they see students grow from kindergarten through high school; which is unlike any other department in the school system.

"We have a great group of people," said Lash with a smile. "I hope they are having as much fun as I am."

Martin Lord Osman
Salmon Press
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