School Lunch, Made From Scratch, Draws Rave Reviews
by Martinique Davis
11.18.09 – 05:36 pm
TELLURIDE – Close to sixty pumpkins came home with the Telluride Intermediate School’s sixth graders following a recent field trip to a pumpkin farm near Delta.
Those pumpkins wound up in new Telluride Schools’ chef Jonny Taylor’s kitchen, and by the end of the week, Telluride students found fresh, low-sugar and low-fat pumpkin muffins in the school lunch lines.
The pumpkins’ evolution from Delta farm to school lunch tray represents what Taylor and members of the Telluride School District’s Wellness Committee anticipate is a growing trend for Telluride’s newly revamped school lunch program. Taylor’s arrival at the beginning of the school year brought about the departure of longstanding school lunch standbys like heat-and-serve chicken nuggets and pigs-in-a-blanket with the made-from-scratch meals like curried chicken with rice and fresh baked pot pies that are now taking center stage on the school lunch menu.
“Nothing comes out of this kitchen anymore that’s been pre-made,” Taylor says, noting a new school initiative, recently launched by the Telluride R-1 School District’s Wellness Committee, to serve its students more natural, less processed food.
Changing what has for decades been status quo for the local school lunch program is a tall order, Taylor admits. Making recipes from scratch is much more labor-intensive than, say, tossing some frozen fish-sticks in the oven, and school budgetary constraints make it difficult to always purchase the best ingredients. But altering the way just one school’s kitchen operates has potentially far-reaching effects, since fundamental changes in a single school district’s lunch programs require a reexamination of the national guidelines that govern the country’s school lunch program.
There is for example the issue of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Commodities Program, which essentially provides schools with free or very reduced-price food to round out their lunch menus, originally a part of the 1949 Farm Bill, whose purpose was to aid struggling farmers and help stabilize rural economies hurt by World War II through a commodity-foods program. Today, however, the commodities program tends to favor food producers, who have considerable lobbying clout in the nation’s capital, and much of what those producers distribute tend to be highly processed, low-nutritional-value foods. There are 6,000 pounds of chicken on a pipeline to Telluride Schools this year through the Commodities Program, which Chef Taylor is hoping will arrive in the least-processed state possible.
But bucking the political status quo as it relates to the National School Lunch Program isn’t what lies at the heart of the Telluride School’s renewed commitment to students’ nutritional health. Providing healthy, wholesome and lovingly prepared foods that have less impact on the planet is, in fact, the overarching goal.
Cathie Seward is a local mother and member of the Telluride School’s Wellness Committee. She says of this year’s revamped school lunch menu: “I have more confidence because I know that there’s a commitment now to use whole foods rather than processed ones.” But as Seward and fellow Wellness Committee member Kristine Hilbert attest, revamping school lunches is about more than just making sure their own kids are eating healthfully at school.
“I want to help give all kids, not just my own, the best chance for success,” Hilbert says of her role as a volunteer on the Wellness Committee. “The food that goes into our children helps them become who they are… .Our country’s food supply is so poisoned, and feeding our children poison is not going to help them, academically or physically.”
Beyond the health issue, lending support for a more whole foods-based local school lunch program feeding 250-300 kids a day represents a step towards creating a more planet-conscious generation, Seward says. “It’s about connecting kids with their food, and that comes down to being more sustainable.”
The Wellness Committee, she adds, aspires to begin utilizing more locally grown and raised foods in the school lunch program, and also plans to help facilitate more opportunities for kids to learn about their food and how it’s grown in the classroom. Talk of building a school greenhouse, where students can garner hands-on experience growing food for their school kitchen, is promising.
Yet Seward admits that finding ways for all of the Wellness Committee’s aspirations to come to fruition won’t be an easy task. The School Lunch Program must be looked at like a business; and any business has a bottom line that must be considered. “It will require finding a balance. We’re just trying to get this stuff higher on the priority list,” she says, adding that the group is looking into applying for grants and other financial aide programs that could help buoy what they hope will become a school lunch program other communities would find inspirational.
Luckily, the Wellness Committee has a partner in their aim to create a healthier and more holistic school lunch program in new school chef Taylor. He admits that while making everything from scratch proves much more labor-intensive than the alternative, heat-and-serve meals, the extra work is well worth it. “The kids are the most gracious customers I’ve ever had,” he says, although, he acknowledged, some of the older kids were miffed recently when they their favorite potpies didn’t get served in the lunch line.
Taylor brings more than a decade of restaurant experience to the school kitchen; after receiving his training from the Culinary Institute of America in New York, he moved to Telluride in 1998 to become a fixture in the local restaurant scene. Locally he has been a chef at Eagle’s (now closed) and the New Sheridan Chop House; he was the head baker at Baked in Telluride and was Chef de Cuisine at Harmon’s (also closed); and also wielded the sushi knife at Honga’s Lotus Petal. He most recently worked at the Brown Bag, where he got to know many local high schoolers.
“They would call in their sandwich, and still barely have time to come in and pick it up before they had to rush back for class – and I would ask them, ‘Why don’t you just eat the school lunch?”
The response to that question made it clear to Taylor that students would rather rush into town to buy a sandwich, which they’d barely have time to eat, than eat what was being served (for just $3) in the school lunch line.
Now that he’s in charge, Taylor works to ensure that he’s serving food kids want to eat. “I go out and chat with the kids, and I ask them what they liked and what they didn’t like. It’s just a matter of talking to them,” he says.
It’s also a matter of finding healthier alternatives for some items that have long been lunch line standbys. Schools in Telluride, Montrose, Durango and Ridgway recently lobbied Meadow Gold to change their recipe for chocolate milk, and start using natural sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup. Ice cream is now only served on Fridays, with healthier, low-sugar alternatives for dessert taking center stage the rest of the week.
Taylor is still, however, working on what to do about Gatorade – a student favorite that also has undesirable ingredients like artificial colors and high fructose corn syrup. He reports that he has found some promising alternatives, but he’s still working on the details.
While students in Telluride may lose Gatorade under their new school chef and the revamped lunch program, they’re gaining more things to love, like daily made-from-scratch muffins, soups like chicken noodle and curried butternut squash, and sides like sweet potato fries; lunch specials like pulled pork barbecue sandwiches and burritos with fresh avocado salsa; and, of course, potpies – which Taylor promises will be back in the lunch line soon.