by Megan Giller • Photography by Alison Narro
Some people might call Jeremy Barnwell a “lunch lady,” but the parents at Austin area schools are more likely to say he’s a vegetable whisperer. The bearded, down-to-earth Austinite makes organic, local meals for about 140 students at five primary schools each day, and he’s single-handedly convinced them to eat mixed greens and roasted broccoli along with scratch-made pizza, with fresh fruit for dessert. Unbelievably, the meals only cost around five bucks.
Barnwell says he’s on a mission to change the way kids eat. His gardening and cooking classes at the Rawson Saunders School teach kids the “whole food system,” he says—from seed to plate. Why? “They’re much more likely to eat something they’ve grown,” Barnwell explains. “You should see the looks on their faces when they pull out a carrot or potato they grew. They’re so excited. I’ve seen them on all fours eating cilantro like little cows in the garden.”
The Barnison Farm and Catering owner takes the vegetables from those gardens, as well as organic and local produce from farmers markets, and crafts meals like mac and cheese made with organic bowtie pasta, roasted vegetables, fresh herbs and a garlic-béchamel sauce. Other favorites include grassfed beef burgers and brisket sandwiches with coleslaw and potato salad. Barnison Catering currently cooks for Rawson Saunders, Paragon Prep, Austin International School and ACE Academy.
Barnwell serves salad with every meal, and he has a rule that in order to get that second slice of pizza or more mac and cheese, you have to clean your plate—or at least try. “I’ve read that after a certain number of bites, your palate starts to adapt to different tastes,” he says. “If they want that second slice of pizza, they have to have a couple bites of salad. I’m like, ‘Just shove it in your mouth real fast!’ After a couple of times, they’ll eat the salad on their own.”
Of course, that’s not the only thing driving kids to eat their veggies. “A fresh, organic carrot has such a different taste than one that has been sitting in the grocery store or warehouse for a month,” Barnwell says. Since he grows his own vegetables and shops at farmers markets three times a week, his produce has rarely been out of the ground for more than 48 hours. “The closer to home, the better quality,” he says. “And the faster it’s going from the ground to your plate, the more nutrients the vegetables are going to have.”
Barnwell didn’t start out trying to feed kids healthful meals, but he’s always been passionate about keeping food local and fresh. “My grandparents were dairy farmers in northeast Texas,” he says. “They always had fresh milk in the fridge. My grandmother would make this huge spread for every meal. Breakfast was crazy…homemade biscuits, eggs, bacon, sausage. They had huge gardens. It was really intriguing to me. I loved being in the kitchen.”
When he and his wife, Alison, moved to Austin in 2004, they decided to buy land in South Austin and start a chicken farm. Perhaps an unusual choice for someone with a degree in freshwater biology, but Barnwell had good reason: There weren’t any poultry vendors at the downtown farmers market. For almost five years, he cornered Austin’s local poultry market. “From the time the chicken was a day old until I would sell it to you, I was the only one who would ever handle the birds,” he says.
By 2010, though, more experienced operations like Richardson Farms were offering poultry, and Barnwell decided to shut down the chicken business and partner with Dai Due chef and owner Jesse Griffiths to teach classes. When Alison, a teacher at Rawson Saunders, described the somewhat lackluster foods being served there, Barnwell had an idea. He pitched a farm-to-school lunch program that would keep prices low but boost nutrition and integrity.
How does he do it for such little cost? “I have no idea,” he says. “But it’s a small operation, and I don’t have to pay a lot of people.” In fact, he just hired his first full-time worker. In spite of Barnwell’s modest response, it’s an accomplishment to make quality, environmentally responsible food for an affordable price.
Beyond that, his kitchen at Rawson Saunders has almost zero waste. He composts a few leftovers like garlic peels and feeds the rest to his 30 chickens, who then lay eggs that he cooks for the kids’ breakfasts. He pickles leftovers like watermelon rinds and uses other scraps in creative ways. Heck, even the lunch containers are compostable, and he’s working on a program to deliver compost tumblers to every school so that they can compost on their own.
For now, though, Barnwell is focusing on growing his own seed—literally. He and Alison are expecting their first son any day now. Something tells us that he’ll like vegetables.