Real school food passing test
RIFLE — Sue Beecraft remembers when she eliminated chips as a lunchtime offering in the Garfield County Re-2 School District. “Frito-Lay was not happy with me,” said Beecraft, director of nutrition services for the district, which stretches from Rifle to New Castle.
Students also hadn’t been thrilled about some of the district’s other efforts in recent years to shift to more nutritious foods. In some cases, they’re still adjusting to the changes.
“I think they should bring the chocolate milk back,” said Kasie Bosshardt, a fourth-grader at Highland Elementary School in Rifle.
Beecraft’s decision to stop providing chocolate milk because of its high sugar content is a lingering sore spot for some students. Nevertheless, Kasie and a group of fellow Highland fourth-graders used words such as yummy, tasty, awesome and terrific to describe the lunches served at their school these days.
“The salad bar to me is really good,” Kasie said.
“I love the strawberries,” Savannah Seay chimed in.
Salad bars, bread baked on premises, the elimination of precooked meats and the near-elimination of processed foods are some of the changes that Beecraft has been introducing in her district, and that other area districts are beginning to pursue as well.
“For the 2009–10 school year, we picked five highly processed food items and said we can remove those from our menu,” said Kathy DelTonto, Beecraft’s counterpart for the Montrose County School District.
The district did away with hot dogs and corn dogs. It began making its own meat loaf, replaced shaped barbecue rib patties with pork roast served on buns, and in lieu of Chef Boyardee served up lasagna created from one of its cook’s home recipes.
As in Garfield Re-2, Montrose is baking its own bread and offering fruit and vegetable bars. It also is working to get more food from local or in-state growers, and the district has set a goal of buying no more than 10 percent processed food, even doing things such as making its own salad dressings, gravies and barbecue sauce, DelTonto said.
It also is focusing on reducing salt, sugar and high-fructose corn syrup contents.
“It’s really about real food,” said Mardell Burkholder, executive director of the Aspen-based nonprofit Children’s Health Foundation, which has been working in Garfield and Montrose counties and elsewhere to help schools make their meals healthier. It’s also about going back to the way things used to be, said Burkholder, and DelTonto can attest to that.
“We’re pulling out recipes we used 25 years ago” in the Montrose schools, said DelTonto, who has worked in the district for 28 years. She said the pendulum swung toward more processed foods because of rising labor costs and a push to boost school lunch consumption by kids, who were attracted by such foods. She and her staff are happy to see the pendulum swinging back.
“We’re excited to cook from scratch again and we like that we’re actually cooking instead of just reheating,” she said.
In Rifle, Highland Elementary kitchen manager Lisa Reichert and her staff displayed the difference one day last week as they worked up such side dishes as red cabbage and hummus to go with the cheeseburgers they were serving on fresh-baked whole-wheat buns.
“A lot of times the kids are going to be ‘eeew,’ but they see something and they try it and they like it,” said Reichert, who used to own a delicatessen in Glenwood Springs. They also learn to like things such as roasted potatoes — if you want French fries, schools such as Highlands aren’t the place to get them.
“What we’re teaching the kids here is what real food looks like,” Beecraft said.
Beecraft realized how far some students’ lunches had strayed from real food several years ago when she noticed that many were buying a la carte items like nachos and cheese, cookies, ice cream and chocolate milk and calling it lunch.
“After observing that I was like, I wouldn’t want my kids to be eating that way,” she said.
As Beecraft began ushering in changes, she hit resistance, but outreach efforts such as a public meeting enabled parents to understand what she was trying to do. She also had the backing she needed from her district administration.
“Garfield was really ready and that was why we went ahead with them, and Sue’s been fantastic to work with,” Burkholder said.
Garfield Re-2 served as a pilot program for improving school nutrition, working with the Children’s Health Foundation and Colorado Health Foundation. Those organizations are helping districts through means such as arranging for professional chefs to train kitchen staff in safe food handling and knife use, and providing funding for purchase of salad bars and equipment needed to do more in-house food preparation.
Burkholder said her group’s interest in the issue stemmed from its concern about childhood obesity, and the realization that an important way to combat it is through school lunches. Garfield Re-2’s efforts led to it being honored by the Colorado Department of Education and Colorado Legacy Foundation last year.
Meanwhile, Beecraft will be doing consulting work for other districts through the Children’s Health Foundation as she cuts back to part-time with Garfield Re-2 in preparation for retirement.
“She definitely has great credibility … She knows how to make it happen,” Burkholder said.
Burkholder said the Children’s Health Foundation is hearing from Front Range school districts, Mesa County District 51 and districts in Eagle and Delta counties that also are interested in having their school nutrition programs evaluated in anticipation of making reforms.
Like Beecraft, DelTonto said she has had to overcome some initial opposition to such reforms. She has found that one key is not to tell kids the district is serving healthier food because they think that means it has no taste. Instead, she said she calls it real food “like Grandma used to make.”
She also has found that it helps to introduce changes slowly, so kids get used to things such as new recipes. While she eliminated chocolate milk at the start of the 2009–10 school year in Montrose schools, it previously had been available there only once a week.
Still, “That was one of our biggest challenges, but I think our parents and staff and students are used to it now, so I think our milk consumption has gone back up,” she said. Burkholder praises the Montrose and Garfield districts’ chocolate milk bans as being a way to help kids kick a sugary habit that can add pounds. Still, she sympathizes with their loss of the flavorful drink. “I can see why they might like it. I like chocolate too,” she said.