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Originally published August 29, 2011 at 9:00 PM | Page modified August 30, 2011 at 9:05 PM

Nicole Brodeur

Seattle schools nutrition director tried, now he's off the menu

On the very day that Seattle magazine chronicled the progress Eric Boutin had made in making Seattle school menus healthier, the district moved him out.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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On the very day that Seattle magazine chronicled the progress Eric Boutin had made in making Seattle school menus healthier, the district moved him out.

"Life's funny that way, I guess," Boutin told me the other day.

He had become the nutrition director of Seattle Public Schools just a year ago and with great fanfare, after holding the same job at the Auburn School District.

There, Boutin drove his pickup to local farms for freshly harvested potatoes that Auburn schools served instead of French fries, and for watermelon instead of fruit cocktail. He visited farmers markets to hand out business cards, hoping to spend the district's money locally.

In Seattle, Boutin brought well-known chefs into the central kitchen to help him develop menus that met district spending limits. He found all-natural hot dogs and grass-fed beef. And he created a vegetarian chili that the kids loved — which is no small thing.

He even took a pay cut to come here because, he said, "I wanted to make a difference. I had high hopes."

Trying to change a school district's eating habits can be a vexing venture, thanks to budget restrictions, food regulations, logistics and the particular palates of some 47,000 kids.

But, according to Boutin, the district added a huge measure of frustration to the mix.

"The constituents are the labor leaders, and not the parents and children," he said. "I've never seen an organization like it.

"It's a very challenging ... structure," he said. "It doesn't have to be, but it is."

Indeed, Local 609, which represents the district's nutrition workers, operates the largest commercial kitchen west of the Mississippi River, according to its website. It prepares 19,000 lunches and 6,800 breakfasts for children and staff on every regular school day. They're a force to be reckoned with.

Dave Westberg, the business manager and spokesman for Local 609, was not available Monday to talk about what happened with Boutin. And the district pleasantly, but predictably, declined to comment beyond the standard "personnel issue" line.

District spokeswoman Teresa Wippel did say that the Nutrition Services Department is being "reorganized," and that Boutin is being offered "a different position."

"He's still an employee," she said, adding that the district is "committed to continuing the improvements that have already been made during the past year."

So the story behind Boutin's reassignment is more of a one-sided jousting competition, with Boutin making most of the jabs.

We all know who ultimately loses, though.

The kids always seem to feel the brunt of whatever the grown-ups can't figure out at the district level. We can get all the state and federal grants we need to take on the problem of childhood obesity (a 45 percent increase since 2001, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) but if the people in charge of spending the money are wasting time on politics, well, the kids can only sit and watch.

Julie Whitehorn, a sustainable-food advocate, former director of the Queen Anne Farmers Market and mother of two kids in the district, got to know Boutin when he came to observe one of her weekly children's cooking classes at the market.

"He was engaged, responsive and very encouraging of educational efforts," she said.

"While I don't know the rationale behind Eric's departure, I do know our kids are losing a great advocate.

"I hope the district reconsidered its decision."

Wherever he ends up, Boutin hopes that the staff he left will continue the work he started in the kitchen, and in the community.

"If nothing else, I've at least advanced the conversation and made connections with farmers and growers," he said. "And that will have to do."

Nicole Brodeur's column appears Tuesday and Friday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or nbrodeur@seattletimes.com.

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