Healthy Kids: School food is changing, and Colorado is setting the pace

More Colorado students are eating fresh, whole foods at school thanks to a team of chefs on a mission.
Denver Chef Dina Paz knows firsthand the importance of being able to eat a healthy, delicious meal at school.

“I grew up as a recipient of ‘free and reduced lunch,’” Paz says of the federal meal assistance program now known as The National School Lunch Program. She was one of five kids in a working class, Honduran family that settled in Miami.

“Every morning before going to school, I had to get 40 cents from my parents for my school lunch,” Paz recalls. Her mother, a housekeeper, and father, a lumber yard foreman, “worked day and night, so having that school breakfast and lunch was helpful to them, and fed me throughout my whole public education.”Colorado Chef Dina Paz spent three years in the kitchen at the longtime Denver restaurant Strings, then many years in corporate recipe development, before becoming a contractor with the School Food Initiative. (Photo by Elana Ashanti Jefferson)

Coloradans such as Chef Paz who devote themselves to solving the state’s food access and equity problems, and tackling head-on the causality between what Americans eat and an upward tick in obesity, diabetes and heart disease rates, see school food as ground zero for launching lasting change.

Since 2010, Colorado has been home to a program that enables chefs like Paz to go into schools and work with cooking staffs to integrate more scratch recipes and fresh, local produce into their meals.

This is a departure from “Naked Chef” Jamie Oliver’s early millennium mandate to public schools: "Eat better. Do better." The School Food Initiative fueled by LiveWell Colorado teaches chefs how to partner with school districts and their kitchen staffs not just to update culinary training and practices but also to apply administrative, finance, marketing and political skills with the goal of putting more healthy food in front of kids on a daily basis.

School Food Initiative chefs also tout the nutritional benefits of many fresh, frozen foods. (Photo by Elana Ashanti Jefferson)

Why turn the microscope on school food, besides the stereotype that what comes out of the cafeteria is “reheated Salisbury steak,” according to comedian Adam Sandler’s “Lunch Lady” song, and often served by a joyless worker in a stained smock?

Here’s why:

Because kids spend half their time and consume half their calories at school, according to Kaiser Permanente.
Because U.S. childhood obesity rates tripled between 1970 and 2000, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, with notably higher rates of obesity affecting children of color.

Because one in five Colorado kids struggles with food insecurity, meaning they may not know where their next meal comes from, according to LiveWell Colorado.

And because without the option of healthy foods, kids, particularly low-income kids, often turn to the convenient, processed, high-caloric options in vending machines and at fast food restaurants, Kaiser says.

More than half of Colorado's 178 school districts have worked with the School Food Initiative, and many more are waiting to participate in the program. (Map provided by LiveWell Colorado)

“We really see school food as a proxy for food culture,” says School Food Initiative Program Director Gabriella Warner. “What goes into our children’s bodies is just as impactful as what they’re learning at school.”

By necessity, Warner and her team of eight chefs must remain current of the regulatory landscape surrounding things, such as school menu-planning and staffing. The chefs aim to understand the resourcing challenges facing each district, then bring updated training and recipes with the ultimate goal of elevating the quality of each school’s offerings.

“School food is just one piece of the pie, but it’s certainly a huge piece that can not only change our children’s relationship with food, but the purchasing power that schools have is greater than anything you and I could do,” Warner says. “Schools have the power to change the food system.”

To date, Warner and the SFI chefs have worked with roughly half of Colorado’s 178 school districts.

“I’m the type of person who really enjoys a challenge,” says Chef Jessica Wright, who grew up in Savannah and Nashville, and was called to culinary school by a childhood sweet tooth. (Her favorite dessert back then? Ooey-gooey seven-layer Magic Cookie Bars.)

Wright quickly developed a love of exotic and savory ingredients, and determined that becoming a pastry chef was not the right path. She spent the early years of her career working in restaurants, and most notably supported the nationwide expansion of Richard Sandoval’s Modern Mexican concepts.

But Wright wanted to work with kids, and find a way to apply her skills outside of the traditional food service industry.
“Restaurant work is challenging,” says this chef who started working with the School Food Initiative in 2010. “School food takes that challenge to a whole new level.”

School Food Initiative Program Director Gabriella Warner says that what kids eat at school is as important as why they learn. (Photo provided by LiveWell Colorado)

With the current school year coming to a close, Wright is especially proud of her recent work with the Idalia School District, which serves about 200 students total in a rural, agricultural Northeastern Colorado community. There, Wright teamed up with the district’s two food service workers, neither of whom had a formal culinary education, and one of whom spoke only scant English.

“They were quiet, reserved and afraid to advocate for themselves,” Wright says. “It was wonderful to help turn them into leaders and empower them to realize how important their jobs are and how vital they are to these children.”

Working out of Salida, Colo., Chef Sally Ayotte said empowerment through food education and training goes a long way toward breaking down perceived barriers to serving fresh food at school such as the cost will be prohibitive or the kids won’t like the new menu options.

School Food Initiative Chef Sally Ayotte, seen here, recently conducted a ranch dressing taste test with students in the Sanford School District. (Photo provided by Chef Ayotte)

“I take people on a supermarket tour and talk about how to buy in season, on sale, and in bulk,” Ayotte says. “I show them how to walk the perimeter of the store, where all the fresh and single-ingredient foods are, and not go to the middle of the store, where all the processed things are.”

School Food Initiative chefs also do taste-testing, to make sure the most important people in their program — school kids — are on board with any new recipes.

“When you take away all of the noise,” says Chef Wright, “it all comes back to the fact that we are feeding kids, and they deserve the absolute best meal we can give them.”

Elana Ashanti Jefferson is a Denver native and longtime freelance journalist.

This is part four of a collaborative editorial project between Confluence Denver and LiveWell Colorado. The six-part series examines barriers to healthy living in Colorado, and how communities are finding solutions.


Read more articles by Elana Ashanti Jefferson.

Elana Ashanti Jefferson is a Denver native and longtime cultural affairs journalist. Her work has appeared in House Beautiful, Lucky, Popular Mechanics, The Denver Post and the Denver Business Journal.
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