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Omaha Magazine

An Extension of Faith in Stewardship: Duchesne Academy’s Lunch Program

Feb 24, 2023 10:08AM ● By Tamsen Butler
Duchesne Academy chef and food program director Joel Wallace

Duchesne Academy chef and food program director Joel Wallace.

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

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For the students and staff of Duchesne Academy, lunch is more than a quick bite between classes—it’s an opportunity to put their faith into action. What was once the single greatest source of waste to the school has been transformed into a groundbreaking program that serves restaurant-style cuisine in a sustainable way. All it took was an innovative chef, a supportive community, and a papal edict.

In 2015, Pope Francis issued a letter to his bishops that voiced a firm stance on the environment and sustainability. Named the Laudato Si, this letter urged readers to take steps to care for their common home. Not only did the letter compel many Catholics into action, it also prompted other faith organizations to take a similar stance: the Earth must be protected.

Around a year later, an anonymous donor approached Duchesne Academy and offered to help implement Laudato Si by making the campus more sustainable, donating 50% of the costs if the school could find a matching donor. Assistant Principal Eric Krakowski was approached to take on the additional role of sustainability coordinator, which he eagerly accepted.

“Eric won some big sustainability awards and is considered a big voice in that space,” said Duchesne’s director of communications, Kevin Boughton. “He probably won’t tell you this himself, but he’s a big deal.”

Though reluctantly “a big deal,” Krakowski has made some big changes to the school, with a major focus on the student meals. 

“One of the goals was to re-envision the lunch program,” Krakowski said. “Another was to incorporate sustainability topics across the curriculum. We have a goal of net positive energy by 2030.”

“The lunch program has been closely linked to the zero-waste initiative,” he continued. “Before this, our lunch program was a lot of pre-packaged food. It was good, but it wasn’t freshly made and wasn’t a from-scratch kitchen or anything like that. Now the program has Chef Joel Wallace, and he and his staff make our lunches from scratch with very few things that are prepared outside of our kitchen.”

Joel Wallace joined Duchesne Academy as their chef and food program director in July 2022. “Joel’s first goal was to get a handle on the lunch program,” continued Krakowski. “Make it affordable, make it delicious. I will say that has been the biggest thing about this lunch program. [...] The biggest source of waste at any school on any given day is the lunch program.” 

Wallace said the sustainability changes made to the lunch program have been “widely accepted and generally praised. Probably the biggest change we’ve made this year is adding animal protein. Previously there was no animal meat of any sort.”

Staff members beg to differ, saying that the restaurant quality of the food has been a far bigger change to the lunch program. Meals like honey pepper salmon with béarnaise sauce and wild rice pilaf get eagerly devoured by students and staff alike. In fact, the salmon dish was mentioned by every staff member interviewed for this piece. 

“They were all really surprised that the kids ate it,” Wallace confessed. “The students were all sending photos of the salmon to their moms.”

Krakowski estimates he eats Wallace’s meals two or three times a week. 

“Today he served sliced pork loin, rice pilaf, asparagus, and a fresh salad. We also had apple crisp. It’s plenty—I’m a big guy, and I never go away from it hungry,” he said. “It’s restaurant-quality food.”

“The kids love it,” Krakowski added. “We’ve never had things like salmon here before. He really does a lot of research to find out where he can find the best price on these things.”

A culinary school graduate, Wallace accepted the role as the school’s chef largely because he and his wife had just welcomed a baby. 

“I wanted the opportunity for a more normal life while still working with food,” Wallace said. “No weekends, no nights!”

Wallace attended culinary school in Portland, Oregon, where “composting is huge and has been for like 15 years.” 

“I was excited to be a part of that again,” he affirmed. 

When he joined Duchesne, sustainability efforts were already firmly in place. 

“They were already doing it,” Wallace said. “I just ordered the right containers. Managing the numbers of how many people we’re going to serve for lunch is a big part of that for us, too.”
And while it is true that the switch to reusable cutlery and compostable cups had a big impact on the school’s waste output, the fact that students and staff actually want to eat Wallace’s food is one of the reasons waste has reduced so significantly.

Wallace said the students’ favorite meals seem to be “tomato soup and grilled cheese, pizza bagels, and macaroni and cheese. Those are the days we see about half of the student body come through.”

“We make all our stuff. For the mac and cheese, I buy pasta, but I shred the cheese and make my own sauce. Since we don’t accept federal funding, we’re not beholden to the USDA guidelines for school lunch programs. They have strict regulations, so that gives us a little more freedom.”

“Before COVID, everything was served on Styrofoam and plastic cutlery, and all that was going into the landfill every day,” Krakowski noted. “Our overall waste has gone down tremendously. Prior to this, we had a 4-cubic-yard dumpster, emptied five days a week. On average, we were probably sending 15 to 20 cubic yards to the landfill every week. The bulk of that was from the lunch program.

“Since we’ve done away with Styrofoam and plastic and started composting, we now have an 8-cubic-yard dumpster that’s picked up one day a week,” Krakowski continued. “I’d say that on average, it’s not even half full. We’re probably sending four to five cubic yards to the landfill weekly.”

Wallace is proud to work in a school making such strides toward sustainability and protecting the Earth. 

“It’s really great,” he said. “We compost, we divide our recycling, we have reusable trays and silverware and if we have leftovers, they go into compost. We leave our footprint pretty low. I think it’s highly important. We have to protect the Earth for that next generation.” 

Like Krakowski, Wallace is an avid composter. Wallace and his wife will soon have solar panels installed on his roof at home. Krakowski estimates that, at home, he rolls his black trash dumpster to the curb maybe every four to six weeks because of how little waste he sends to the landfill. The Duchesne Academy staff takes sustainability seriously, inside and outside the school. 

Wallace’s advice to any other school looking to reduce the footprint of their lunch program is to consult with a waste management company offering sustainable solutions; Duchesne Academy partners with Hillside Solutions for their composting. 

“All that waste, it’s useable for somebody. It’s huge. You don’t think about how many paper towels you use or what to do with peelings from vegetables, but they can break it down and turn it into soil,” Wallace said.

Krakowski, who has a recycling station in his office, said students stop by throughout the day dropping off recyclables. He said that even though not every student wants to pursue careers in sustainability, many say that they’ll find a way to bring sustainability into whatever career they choose. 

Wallace, Krakowski, and Boughton are all proud to be a part of a school with such a profound commitment to sustainability and the environment. 

“Duchesne’s a great community and it’s been a real treat to serve everyone here,” Wallace affirmed.

As the first school in the city of Omaha to have a compost program, and perhaps one of the only to have a professional restaurant chef at the helm of the lunch program, Duchesne Academy is setting the bar high for what school campuses can be—not only for the health of their students, but for the health of the planet. 

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This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To subscribe, click here. 

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.


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