By Robin Chotzinoff
Photography by Rebecca Fondren
As founder and longtime owner of Austin’s Sweetish Hill Bakery, Patricia Bauer-Slate was known not just for her fine European-style cakes, breads and café meals, but also for managing the staff that produced them. It was a big job that produced big success. But Patricia gave up her interest in the bakery last February, and now, at 62, she revels in an entirely different kind of accomplishment: making decent, healthy school lunches.
“I can make kid-friendly food with names kids recognize, almost all with fresh ingredients,” she says proudly. “I once thought Sweetish Hill was my identity, and all it turns out to have been is my school. It turns out I was meant to do the school lunch thing.”
That school lunch thing appeared on Patricia’s radar 30 years ago, when she wandered into Mathews Elementary School to vote and ended up asking for a job in the kitchen. Trained as a chef in Europe, she was surprised to learn that the Mathews cafeteria workers didn’t cook so much as open boxes and thaw the frozen, processed contents. “The trend away from cooking was already in full swing,” she remembers.
Decades later, a friend asked Patricia to cater lunches for a son with celiac disease who attended preschool at All Saints Episcopal Church. Soon, other parents signed up and she was making 20 lunches per day, accommodating not just allergies, but plain old preschool appetites.
“From the beginning I decided to find menus that everybody could eat, instead of making special food,” she says, “and the kids started to catch on. I learned that they weren’t gonna eat salad, but they would eat carrot and celery sticks, and they loved sliced apples with orange juice squeezed over them. People actually asked me for the recipe! I was hooked.”
A year later, she inaugurated Patricia’s Lunchbox and decided to work on school lunch full-time. By the fall of 2008, her lunches were being served at seven private schools—sometimes as an alternative selected by parents, and sometimes as the cafeteria’s only menu choice. Only after expanding, she says, did she realize the complexities of changing the way people eat, even when those people are elementary-school age or younger.
“Not only children but parents and administrators had been eating the processed food for a long time,” she remembers. “And every single school I’ve talked to has people working in the kitchen whom they love, even if they’re mostly reheating things. These people are not looking to do the children harm—they’ve just been heavily marketed to, and their idea of a meal includes processed food.”
Needless to say, Patricia’s ideas are different. She doesn’t believe in the increasingly popular food-court model for school cafeterias and prefers to serve what used to be known as a “hot lunch” (one main selection per day) with perhaps a soup and/or sandwich alternative. A typical day might feature meat loaf with dairy-free mashed potatoes, peas and carrots, fruit salad, a slice of baguette and a glass of organic milk. Or she might add a homemade vegetable-noodle soup or sandwich-and-salad-bar combo.
“There’s no charge for seconds on fruit and vegetables,” she says. “In fact, we high-five the kids who come back.”
In doing so, Patricia’s Lunchbox creates not just a healthy food attitude, but also what she calls “great mom jobs.” Many of the meals are prepared by moms who can work when their kids are in school.
“I’m meeting the most wonderful, young, strong women,” Patricia says, “and some my own age—grandmas who love being around kids and who are totally buzzed about what I’m doing.”
For now, there are no openings for new schools until fall 2009, but when the kinks are ironed out, Patricia hopes to serve two thousand meals per day and expand beyond middle and into high schools. “I’d like to cook for the spectrum,” she says, “to take on the different challenges of the different ages. Then I’d like to start training people who want to do this for themselves.”
Feeding good food to kids is likely to remain a complicated, sometimes even politically charged, business. But as Patricia likes to say, “just give ’em a good plate of food.” The rest will follow.
For more information, visit patriciaslunchbox.com