When we think back to our school cafeteria days, recalling who served our food through the lunch line and overall experience is likely a blur. Reason being; the food was probably mediocre, with options like dry meatloaf or a spoonful of “guess-what’s-inside” casserole mixed with Tater Tots. It’s also doubtful your lunch server took time to educate or influence you on making healthy food choices. However, thanks to nutritional crusaders like Jeremy Barnwell, he’s refined several Austin school lunch programs by creating organic, healthier meals; and is living proof that Adam Sandler’s Lunch Lady song is due for a remix.
Barnwell’s appearance at first glance could be intimidating to some, and defies the image of a traditional school cafeteria server. However, his friendly disposition contrasts his long hair and bearded-tattooed look. In speaking with Barnwell, his warm tone and passion for inspiring others to choose healthier eating habits is instantly infectious. He explains how his initial move to Austin, TX transformed his career. “I put my degree in fresh water biology on the shelf, and my wife and I bought some property and moved to Austin; including a chicken farm. However, we had NO experience or even touched a chicken before. I taught myself the entire process from raising the chickens to packaging and selling them at the local Famer’s market. It was there I started meeting local chefs purchasing from me who were really involved in the local food scene. I started networking and began cooking with different chefs, learning the intricacies of fine dining. It made me realize then how passionate I was about cooking and being in the kitchen.”
At the same time Barnwell was mastering his chef and farming skills, his wife worked locally at the Rawson Saunders School and mentioned a huge room for opportunity. “She shared with me that the food quality needed serious help and even though they had a full kitchen, they weren’t utilizing it well. They would bring in menu options like hot dogs, and then overcharge them for it. I had an idea and went to the head of the school—proposing I cook for them at the same costs but with healthier food options. She loved my pitch, and I got the job,” he recalls.
Aside from prepping, cooking and serving the meals at the school, he started a produce garden and teaches a cooking class that’s become part of the curriculum. He shares one rewarding aspect as not only seeing the kids ask for seconds and thirds, but how they’ve adopted habits for fresh, sustainable foods. “Although I cook pizza, hamburgers, and pastas—everything is handmade including the dough with locally grown milled wheat. I serve fresh organic fruit and salad every day, and have a policy they get everything I serve. If they eat everything, they can come back and get seconds. So if they want another slice of pizza or a taco, I make them eat the stuff they maybe wouldn’t normally want to eat. Often the parents come up to me and ask, what have you done to my child? They’re asking me to only buy mixed greens and organic foods at the grocery store! It’s also amazing to see their faces the first time they pull a carrot out of the ground, or munch on a cilantro leaf fresh from the garden.”
Barnwell’s program has became so successful over the last three years, it caught the attention of parents at other schools in the district, prompting him to open Barnison Farm & Catering, where he provides packed lunches that are delivered to the other campuses. He shares, “It started off super slow the first year doing 20-30 lunches a day, and now on an average day we might serve between 70 – 120 meals. We get people to volunteer a day in the kitchen, but throughout the year finding help can often be a challenge. I’ve finally hired an assistant though and she’s been a tremendous help.” Currently Barnwell’s meals are delivered to two campuses with one more to be added this August.
In regards to Barnwell’s bearded and tattooed appearance at the school, he shares he’s never experienced a negative reaction. “I think Austin is a pretty liberal place, and people are just kind of used to tattoos and beards. However, I just cut about ten inches off my beard. It was more about me being uncomfortable though, and I also started thinking maybe I shouldn’t have a foot long beard while serving food.”
Although he scaled back his beard length, Barnwell explains it’s symbolic in representing his own path in life, and adds (laughing), “they’re also pretty manly—but on the serious side; I think being I own my own business, it’s saying I can do what I want, wear my hair how I want, and I can grow my beard as long as I want. I don’t really have a boss telling me how long I can grow it.”
Although Barnwell keeps a full schedule in the kitchen, he’s able to set time aside for other hobbies and downtime. “I keep with the school schedule and we have summers off. So I love to travel and go to new places meet new people. I listen to everything music-wise, but metal and indie rock are my two main things. It’s fun to go to live shows on occasion here in Austin.” Barnwell also hopes one day he can gradually get more involved with additional schools and states, “the more schools I’m in, the better kids will eat—and I can continue to support local farms and employ people with the same passions about teaching people to eat well.”
Barnwell and his wife are also looking forward to having their first child in late October and shares, “we’re very excited about it! We’re going to have a boy—and hopefully he’ll grow a mighty beard!” Wishing Barnwell and his family the best on their new member of the family, we also have high-bearded hopes for him, and are pretty sure that he’ll be eating very well!