Colorado schools taste change in student meals
One day in April, Durango students sat down to a lunch that included Tuscan blend vegetables, a choice of fresh fruit and a salad bar.
For parents who remember school veggies as limp green or orange wads floating in watery brine and smelling of tin cans and steam trays, Durango’s fancy local produce and grass-fed beef might seem nothing short of revolutionary.
The day might be coming, though, when that menu is the norm.
More and more adults, swept along in the organic, buy-local tide, are turning gripes into action and crafting changes to make school food healthier and — dare we say it — even tasty.
Improvements can’t come soon enough for children whose doctors are now advised to check them for high cholesterol and blood pressure before they’re old enough to write.
But change won’t come easily, either.
The school food program, which includes breakfasts, after-school snacks and summer meals as well as lunch, is a more than $11 billion-a-year federal program to put macaroni and cheese and milk in the hands of 30 million kids a day. Getting food from producers to schools requires a vast, and entrenched, infrastructure of government agencies and food-industry giants.
That might explain why, as Congress slogs through a debate over substantial changes to the Child Nutrition Act, many are betting that real improvement will come from the ground up, through grassroots organizations and philanthropy.
And lunch ladies.
School-food advocate Kate Adamick is convinced it is those front-line workers — don’t call them lunch ladies, she insists, they’re lunch teachers — who will effect real change.
“When they learn they’ve been used in a way that put profit over kids’ health, when they learn they can save money by not buying processed commodity foods, and all the other ways we teach them to increase the revenue stream and cook from scratch,” then food and nutrition in schools will improve, she said.
Adamick, a founder of Food Systems Solutions, traveled across Colorado this summer teaching school employees to cook from scratch.
In her week-long boot camps, she also did a fair amount of preaching against the evils and costs of processed foods — the very food that school cooks have been told saved time and money.
In Colorado, at least five government agencies had a hand in getting school lunches to the 390,868 kids who participated in the program last year.
Schools buy most of their own food, using money they get from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The amount they get varies some, but most schools get 25 cents for each lunch bought the year before. The rate is higher for students whose lunches are subsidized.
Roots of program run deep
For fresh fruits and vegetables, school officials can turn to the folks who bring you F-18 fighters and khaki uniforms: the Department of Defense.
Pentagon contractors have supplied schools with produce for decades, and the best explanation for that is that they are equipped to handle the massive volume schools require.
Schools also buy about 20 percent of their food, on average, through the USDA’s commodities program.
That program, which has its roots in the plummeting prices of the Great Depression, allows the federal government to buy up crops and meat if prices are falling.
Once a year, school districts go shopping for commodities. In Colorado, the commodity selections are offered through the state Department of Human Services.
Schools choose the food; then, if it’s, say, chicken pieces, they can choose to get it delivered raw to cook themselves or send it to a processor who can turn it into nuggets or patties or fajita strips.
About 60 percent of commodity food purchased in Colorado is processed before delivery, said Phil Loo, who oversees Colorado’s commodities program.
Adamick said most school districts she’s worked with believe they save money by getting their chicken legs or beef processed.
The USDA encourages that belief.
The agency’s website describes commodity processing as a way to “convert raw bulk USDA commodities into more convenient, ready-to-use end products.”
Participating in the processing program allows schools to “stretch their commodity dollars” and saves labor costs, the website continues.
It also injects sodium and fat into food, school-food reform advocates claim, while injecting profits into food processors’ pockets.
“Commodity food is basically pushing unhealthy food into schools,” said Ann Cooper, who is Boulder Valley Schools’ nutrition director and an outspoken critic of the food-procurement system.
“The government buys the chicken, and the companies that sell the chicken then turn around and process the chicken. It’s totally double-dipping.”
Processed foods took over
Not long ago, Leo Lesh, who is in charge of nutrition for Denver Public Schools, decided he wanted commodity chicken legs, but the state was offering only chicken nuggets.
He called the processor.
“I told him, I’m still gonna give you the same amount of money, I just want the legs, not the nuggets. He said, ‘I don’t know, I might get in a little trouble,’ ” Lesh said.
Lesh said he responded, “Well, if it’s only a little trouble, I’m prepared to live with that.”
Schools haven’t always been awash in processed food.
“When I started, the menu was mostly scratch cooking,” said Jane Brand, nutrition director for the state Department of Education.
“Over the years, labor costs went up, and they were trying to reduce labor costs and keep within the reimbursement rate,” she said.
The resulting shift to processed food has been so complete that in recent decades, some school kitchens were equipped to do little more than re-heat and re-constitute.
Cooper, who has brought salad bars to Boulder schools and banned high-fructose corn syrup, said initially cooking from scratch can cost more because of investments in labor, training and equipment.
“But over time, it does not,” she said.
With an estimated 15 percent of Colorado children now growing up poor, school lunches and breakfasts might be the only regular meals a lot of the state’s kids can depend on.
“The school lunch program is one of the healthiest meals some children receive,” Brand said.
Loo agreed. “Could it be better? Definitely,” he said.
But, he said, “If I cut sodium and cut fat and you get a piece of product kids won’t eat because it tastes like sawdust, then we defeat the purpose of feeding kids. The balancing act is very delicate.”
Schools, he said, are under pressure to serve meals, or lose money.
Adamick has no patience for that excuse.
“To say we need to give children a choice between what’s healthy and what they want is irresponsible,” she said.
Last year, the Institute of Medicine put school food, and kids’ nutrition in general, under its microscope and didn’t like what it saw.
Kids of all ages got less than 20 percent of the recommended amount of dark green and orange vegetables.
They got about 40 percent of total recommended vegetables — with French fries and potato chips included in that total.
But schools are doing some things right. The report noted that kids who participated in school breakfast programs had lower body mass index, on average, than those who didn’t.
The group recommended a number of broad improvements, including setting maximum calorie limits on meals — currently there are only minimums — as well as limits on sodium. They also want more whole grains and more dark green and orange vegetables.
The recommendations would also ban whole milk.
The IOM also advocates what might sound like an obvious strategy: “food-based” menu planning. Strange as it sounds, that is not how most schools approach menu-planning.
Now, they use a system the IOM called nutrient-based, meaning schools can satisfy USDA standards for vitamin C, for example, by serving fruit snacks, according to schoolfoodpolicy.com.
Under a food system, schools would have to serve items from various food groups, including fruits and vegetables.
Last month, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told Congress that his agency is “working as aggressively as possible to implement the Institute of Medicine recommendations . . . but we also know that the improved foods will increase costs for local schools.”
The Senate passed a measure containing some of the recommended reforms Thursday; action is pending in the House.
The USDA does not need legislative authority to enact some of the changes the IOM called for. What it says it needs is money.
When schools can’t find the money to keep teachers on staff, there is virtually no chance of funding a walk-in refrigerator or kitchen knives.
The money won’t come from tax dollars. But it is trickling in from private sources, including advocacy groups that want school nutrition changed badly enough to pay for it.
LiveWell Colorado, the same nonprofit that put bicycles for rent all over Denver, made grants that paid for Adamick’s boot camps.
Over a year ago, a group called School Food FOCUS gave Denver Public Schools $50,000.
With that money, FOCUS put Leo Lesh in touch with local growers and distributors, sources he said he never would have had time to search out on his own.
As a result, he’s stopped buying Department of Defense produce and gets mozzarella for pizza from Denver’s Leprino Foods.
The benefits to buying local, he’s learned, go beyond feeling warm and fuzzy and green.
“I can call them up and say, ‘Hey, I think we need to have less sodium or less fat” and they can experiment with that,” he said.
That wouldn’t work with a food behemoth on the other side of the country, he said.
Schools across Colorado are increasingly interested in buying the state’s Western Slope peaches and Rocky Ford melons, said George Andrews III, owner of Pueblo’s Andrews Foodservice Systems Inc.
This summer, 12 out of 53 school districts cited Andrews as their primary source of produce in a survey for Colorado’s chapter of the national Farm to School Network.
In its last session, the Colorado legislature gave a nudge to any schools that haven’t started buying local.
The Farm-to-School Healthy Kids Act calls for a task force, funded through federal stimulus money, to help link local farmers and schools.
That’s exactly what Andrew Nowak of Slow Food Denver is trying to do too.
A rewarding harvest
Nowak is a Denver chef whose life changed when he planted a garden at his child’s school, only to learn that, back then, there were rules against bringing what the kids grew into the school to serve.
Bringing fresh, local food to school kids became his crusade, and this summer, he got a bit of reward for his work.
Nowak was among the hundreds of chefs whom first lady Michelle Obama invited to the White House in June as part of the Chefs Move to Schools chapter of her healthy kids initiative.
Back in his hometown, Nowak is helping Lesh and Denver schools find that delicate balance between healthy and yummy in the 46,000 lunches and 16,000 breakfasts the district serves daily.
This summer, 120 DPS kitchen staffers went through three weeks of boot camp, learning to roast herbed chicken, make fresh squash with cilantro and green been salad.
When kids come back to school later this month, they’re going to notice fresher veggies and more fresh-cooked food, at least in the 25 to 30 schools where scratch food cooking will debut, Lesh said.
At noon one Wednesday in July, a handful of those boot campers sat around tables at Bruce Randolph Middle School, feasting on the roasted chicken and steamed veggies they made that morning, and talking about what it will be like to make pizza dough, and most everything else from scratch.
Princess Greene, in her third year at DPS, took a bite out of a scratch-cooked crumb cake, and grinned.
“We made it from flour and eggs. It’s the first time I ever baked anything,” she said.
“We put our heart and soul into that cake. We’re not just lunch ladies now; we’re cooks.”
Karen Auge: 303-954-1733 or firstname.lastname@example.org