Kindergarten students Melia Pacheco Fluker, left, and Jiselle Barry mix a salad at Fairmont Academy. ( Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post )
Whatever you think about school lunch, many agree it’s time to rethink it.
A convergence of issues — the obesity crisis, overly processed meals, the desire for more local, natural foods — forms the front wave of a sea change in how we feed our children.
But before you launch into “It’s about time, I remember those canned green beans from my grade school days, and my kid’s lunches are no better,” listen to someone who’s already in the food fight:
“We don’t bash the school food,” says agriculture activist Jim Dyer, who is all for reform but knows better than to make the lunch ladies mad. “We work with where it is.”
Chef/consultant Ann Cooper, on the other hand, calls herself the “renegade lunch lady,” and
Angel Gutierrez, a fifth-grader at Fairmont Dual Immersion Academy, hoists a squash from the school garden.(Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post)
she feels free to bash away: “Chicken nuggets, chocolate milk and canned fruit cocktail are ridiculous. We’re actually killing our children with food.”In addition to her work as director of nutrition services at the Berkeley, Calif., Unified School District, Cooper is author of “Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children.”
In May, the 500-square-mile Boulder Valley School District hired Cooper’s consulting firm to perform a top-to- bottom assessment of its lunch program. It will issue a final report later this month but has already called for increased attention to hygiene, removal of instant ramen noodles from the menu and allowing recess before, instead of after, lunch.
“They’ve really taken a hard look at what we need to do across the district,” says chief financial officer Leslie Stafford. “We’re hoping to use more local resources. We’re really excited — we served our last can of cheese last week. We have a long way to go but we have made some small steps. Instead of waiting for the USDA or the state to change, we are going to change on the district level.”
Opting out entirely
Summit Middle Charter School in Boulder has bypassed the government system entirely. Two years ago, after
Fairmont seventh-grader Meliza Madrigal helps organize the school’s final farmers market Friday.(Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post)
parents asked for better-tasting, healthier, locally grown and more organic lunches, the school contracted with Fast and Fresh Foods, chef Connie Gordon’s cafeteria catering company.Fast and Fresh staff can use the stove in the school kitchen, built in 1964 when schools still had working kitchens and food was prepared on site.
“We felt that the quality of the food the district provided was pretty poor, and we wanted to start teaching our kids about good nutrition,” says Summit principal David Finnell, after a lunch of barbecued chicken, fried brown rice, fresh watermelon and honeydew cubes.
Food like this costs more — $5 for hot lunch, $3 to $4 for a la carte items — but Finnell and his board think it’s worth it. “To some degree, you get what you pay for,” he says. “There’s an epidemic of obesity in this country, and we felt we couldn’t turn a blind eye to what we were serving.”
Finnell says that if the district food improves, he would consider returning to its school lunch program.
Growing an appreciation for food
When chef Fiona O’Donnell Pax took over as director of food services at Colorado Rocky Mountain School, a private boarding and day school in Carbondale, her first action was to get rid of sodas, sweets and ice-cream bars. “My view was kids don’t need that, they’re going to buy it anyway with their own pocket money. If you give them an opportunity to try new things they’ll balk at the beginning but eventually they’ll try it. It educates their palate, as well,” says O’Donnell Pax, who has the luxury of using produce from the 1 1/2-acre school garden.
Students tend and harvest the carrots, onions, beets, raspberries, squash, herbs and fruit trees, and help prepare and serve the food at weekly formal dinners.
“The whole idea of giving food to kids in school in the first place was to nourish them, and if you’re feeding them with processed foods, they’re not going to be able to study.”
But what about districts and schools that can’t afford school supplies, let alone chefs, consultants and organic salad bars?
Many schools in the Denver district have community gardens, including Steele Elementary and Fairmont Dual Immersion Academy, both started by Slow Food Denver, the local branch of the international group.
Seven years ago, chef Andrew Nowak, whose children then attended Steele, planted the school garden as a way to teach kids where food came from. “Right away I noticed how much food could be involved in the curriculum. It was really interesting to watch the kids approach a broccoli plant, and I’d say ‘take a piece off and eat it’ and it blew them away,” says Nowak, who still runs the garden program even though his kids have moved on to middle and high school.
“It started conversations on seed starting, all the way through the life of the plant, through the harvest and the death of the plant and back to compost,” says Nowak. “Plus, they’re out there working in the sun and the dirt, so they get a message about how hard it is to grow food.”
The Fairmont garden at West Second Avenue and Elati Street needs a new mentor and funding, as former teacher Robert Parker retires from volunteering and the school’s original grant ends this fall. On Sept. 26, Parker conducted a bilingual graduation ceremony for the gardeners, who work for six months from seedlings through harvest.
At Fairmont’s fall festival potluck, three years of digging, weeding, harvesting and selling produce came to a close for Perla Escoto and Lucero Monsivais, who will graduate from the Baker neighborhood school at the end of eighth grade this year. But the two 13-year-olds who were paid as part of the garden program say they want to continue working as volunteers in the garden that changed how they eat.
“My mom’s been going to the market here at school and cooking more with vegetables,” says Escoto, who plans to be a cook when she grows up.
Raising the salad bar
Chef Tiffany Askins is a veteran of getting kids to try new foods, with her 9- year-old and 6-year-old twins, and in her Edible Learning after-school class at Silver Creek Elementary in Thornton.
“My rule is that we all must try it at least one time and then tell why you don’t like it. ‘I don’t like it’ just doesn’t fly. Being able to communicate that to parents or caregivers gives them a good, empowering education tool,” says Askins, a caterer who admits she got into a packaged-food rut with her own children — and herself.
“We are pulled in so many directions so it’s easy to be pulled toward packaged food, plus I don’t want to fight with my family at dinner time,” says Askins.
As part of Colorado Proud School Meal Day Sept. 10, Askins used apples to teach Hillcrest Elementary students about sweet snacks, healthier breakfasts and quick desserts. Some of the kids were amazed to learn that the same fruit that’s in applesauce actually grows on trees.
“Kids think food really does come out of a can, and schools get caught up in what’s convenient and cheap. The main kitchen appliance in some schools is a box cutter, but at the same time they send home information on how to eat healthier,” she says. “There are more kids now with Type 2 diabetes, food allergies and behavior problems. We want our kids to be healthier and think clearly while they’re in school. Cooking is not just eating to get fed, it’s a life skill.”
Askins is hoping to persuade her district, Adams 12, to buy more locally grown produce and prepare more school food from scratch.
From farms to schools
For Barb Marty, the farm-to-table concept isn’t so hard to implement. She lives on a farm in Henderson, and home- schools her four children. Plus, her mom was a lunch lady.
Dismayed by the lunches at her children’s school at the time, and in response to the ongoing obesity crisis, Marty joined with other like-minded agriculture activists to form the Colorado Farm-to-School group.
“The lower quality of food is affecting children’s health, physically and mentally,” she says. “One of the issues we’ve come across is none of the schools have prep kitchens, just heat-and-cook kitchens. The bottom-line budget perception is that it costs more to hire a person to cook.”
In the Four Corners area, fellow food activist Dyer has found success with a local, “small steps” approach. In Durango, 10 schools now use local microgreens year- round, local wheat goes into breakfasts, and grass-fed beef from area ranches fills tacos and burritos. Dyer hopes to bring this approach to the state level.
And now that the Colorado Institute of Public Policy has surveyed schools and suppliers statewide, the pieces are in place to connect kids with local foods.
“At this point we know there are producers that want to sell, down to what counties they’re in,” says Beth Coop, who did the survey as part of her CSU master’s project. “And we know what quantities what schools are interested in. Next is connecting producers to schools and schools with producers.”