Healthy school foods pass inspection

Veronica Chavez, from left,  Robin Sweeney and Dan Sharp talk about the new cooking equipment in the Grand Mesa Middle School kitchen that allows staff to cook from scratch in an effort to provide more nutritous food for the students. The kitchen makes more than 400 meals a day.

All 37 School District 51 kitchens sailed through a rigorous state inspection last month certifying the district’s made-from-scratch menu meets all health and nutrition standards required by law, school officials said.

The inspection was part of the state’s stepped-up enforcement of school nutrition and food safety guidelines outlined in the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

With a menu created by district nutritionists and a local dietician, the food produced at the county’s largest restaurant chain does more than supply nutrition for the body.

The brain food is also producing positive results on student report cards, District 51 Nutrition Services Director Dan Sharp contended last week.

Two studies — one published in 2004 and the other in 2009 — found evidence that healthy, made-from-scratch school meals improve educational outcomes, especially in English and science, Sharp said.

While the move to made-from-scratch meals was underway at District 51 before 2010, the program got a big shot in the arm this spring after the Colorado Health Foundation awarded a $260,000 grant.

“It is a significant amount of money and we’re very thankful to receive it,” Sharp said.

In all, the district counts annual revenues of between $5.4 and $5.6 million each year through the school lunch program. About 60 percent of that amount comes from the federal government in the form of school lunch subsidies.

Sharp said the grant money was used to buy most of the kitchen tools the district needs to prepare fresh meals for between 8,000 and 9,000 students each day.

“That makes us the biggest restaurant chain in Grand Junction,” he said.

Giant salad spinners, kettles, steamers and food processors were among the many items the district was able to buy with the grant, Sharp said.

Each lunch has a limited target for sodium and saturated fat. The average lunch must not exceed 650 calories for elementary students, 700 calories for middle-schoolers and 850 calories for high school students, said Vanessa Carter, the district’s registered dietician.

Carter, who is employed by Primary Care Partners, works under contract with the district to make sure the meals meet state and federal guidelines.

Carter was also instrumental in helping the district obtain the $260,000 grant, Sharp said.

The district started work early on new lunch requirements by ditching whole and 2 percent milk four years ago and using only whole grains now, years before it was required in U.S. schools.

Carter analyzed the ingredients from all 20 items on the four-week cycle of meals the district serves.

“Less processed food is better for you,” Carter said. “This is not produced somewhere in some factory in the Midwest and pumped full of sodium so it can be transported here and then frozen, reheated and served. When you actually prepare a meal at home, that’s always healthier than purchasing something that is re-heated.”

Students used to eat canned vegetables and fruits swimming in sugary syrup, followed by white bread, tater tots and chicken nuggets, Sharp said.

Today, students enjoy romaine lettuce salads, fresh apples, peaches with no added sugar, a homemade main dish and low-fat 1 percent milk from local dairies, he said.

Other sandwich and salad options are available, Carter said.

“Mom’s Barbecue Chicken” is just one of the 20 main dish recipes district cooks prepare from scratch. The simple recipe calls for a 2 1/2-pound chicken, 1 1/8 cups of barbecue sauce and six rolls. 

At 382 calories per serving, the meal complies with all limits on fat and salt required by law, Carter said.

The district provides an online method for parents to monitor the nutritional value of the school meals their children are eating at, Sharp said.

Sharp and Carter are currently working on another grant that would bring in another $250,000 or so to purchase salad bars for several schools, an amenity Sharp said he wants to eventually see in every District 51 school.


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The grant was awarded by the Colorado Health Foundation.

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