Aspen Times Weekly cover story: Tenille Folk feeds Aspen’s kids right | AspenTimes.com

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Aspen Times Weekly cover story: Tenille Folk feeds Aspen’s kids right

Photo by Stewart OksenhornCover by Afton Groepper

ASPEN – Several times, Tenille Folk expressed regrets that my recent visit to the Aspen school campus came on a Friday. Friday at the Aspen Elementary and Middle Schools, where Folk is the chef and food service manager, is pizza day, and though her pizza is, like virtually everything she serves at the schools, made from scratch, with whole-wheat crust and a sauce that includes (shhh – do not tell the kids – this is an example of what Folk calls “stealth health”) pureed zucchini and squash, and was served alongside Caesar salad and apple slices, Folk doesn’t consider it the ideal showcase for the health-conscious cooking she is doing. She didn’t want me to flash back to my own elementary-school years, when Friday was, indeed, pizza day, and think, same old school lunch program. She would have preferred I come on, say, chicken teriyaki and stir-fried veggies day.

Folk need not have worried; the contrast to my childhood lunches only makes her look better. Lunch-room pizza back in my day (early ’70s, Livingston, N.J.) was a rectangular thing whose provenance, it could not have been clearer, was a cardboard box. The pizza, for reasons that puzzled me, was served with a stick of rubbery yellow cheese (to make up for the fact that the pizza didn’t have cheese?) and a tiny paper cup of peanuts.

Back in the kitchen at the Aspen schools, the scene more closely resembled a pizzeria than the cafeterias from my school days. Folk and her crew were stirring up tomato sauce, spreading it on light-brown crusts, tossing cheese on top. What came out of the oven looked like the genuine article. The only thing missing, at least in the elementary school, was toppings: pepperoni was not healthful enough for the littler kids. (The middle-schoolers, who Folk believes are better able to make smart food choices, had other options, including ham-and-pineapple slices.)

In addition to the pizza, Folk could point to the elementary-school salad bar, which sported broccoli, carrot-and-corn salad and brown rice salad, carrot and celery sticks, and orange slices. (When Folk spied a boy sneaking extra orange wedges, it seemed like validation of her efforts: “They love it!” she said.) At the middle school, there was kale salad, which is offered most days, and a cooler full of fresh-made fruit smoothies.

Folk’s school kitchens are just as notable for what they don’t have. There are no deep fryers or microwaves, no bags of frozen French fries and tater tots, no chocolate milk. There is an area of one storage shelf devoted to a very limited supply of canned goods: tomatoes (which are opened only after her stock of fresh tomatoes runs out, around October), pumpkins (a gift, Folk says with a shrug).

“Obviously, it’s easier to put a case of chicken nuggets on a tray and put it in the oven,” Folk said, after describing her mac-and-cheese (with pureed butternut squash and with no cream) and potatoes (Colorado-grown, roasted with herbs), the apple juice (organic, from Paonia) and the option of organic milk (for an extra dollar). “But I feel it’s just as easy to put a case of chicken tenders that’s been marinated overnight in the oven.”

I pointed out her contradiction: Clearly, it was less effort to toss a few boxes of frozen nuggets in the oven than to marinate fresh chicken. What Folk might have been saying was that doing it the way she does is easier on her conscience.

“OK, it takes a little more work. But you’re putting out a better product,” she said. “I’ve got kids. If we don’t do this now, we’re not going to have kids to look after. That’s the bottom line. Four of the leading causes of death in America are diet-related: cancer, obesity, stroke and diabetes. These are things we don’t think about as a kid. But these are practices we have to deal with no, or down the road … these diet-related diseases are going to kill us all off.”

Such dire statements seem out of character for Folk. She is an agreeable, cheerful sort who would rather have students eating her food because it is yummy, not because she’s lectured them about the nutritional benefits of broccoli over hot dogs. (You could say she prefers the carrot to the stick.) The 33-year-old Folk seems more accurately characterized by her commitment to set the food world right, and the tenacity she brings to that commitment. Apart from planning menus, cooking, and fighting the budgetary battles that all public school cooks fight, but that consumes even more energy when you’re trying to make the food as healthful as possible, Folk holds fundraisers (with the money used to buy more local ingredients), offers after-school cooking classes, fosters relationships with area farmers, and tends to a garden on the school grounds. Last year she traveled the state teaching other schools how to make their lunch-room operations more healthful; she put that effort on hold this year, as she is pregnant with her second child.

“She’s trying to do farm-to-table on a minuscule budget – a salad bar for little kids? Kale? Tenille’s not opening a bunch of cans. It’s fine dining for little people, on a shoestring,” Jack Reed, one of Folk’s suppliers of local ingredients, said. “She’s a community treasure. You’re all really lucky to have her.”

• • • •

Folk had an appreciation for food as a kid. Growing up in the tiny coastal village of South West Rocks, in the Australian state of New South Wales, fresh fish was a way of life. “There were fishing co-ops. We lived right on the beach, and my dad had a fishing boat. We got snapper, barramundi,” she said. Folk’s father was an electrician by trade, and Folk remembers that much of his work was at the local abattoir, where he would often be tipped with a generous piece of just-butchered lamb.

Folk also experienced the other side of food – what she was served in school: “I remember the meat pies, the sausage rolls – pastry and processed meats, all that crap. We had the selection of Coca-Cola, every candy bar you can think of. I don’t remember fresh fruits … maybe you’d get vegetables.”

The memories of fresh seafood and homemade lamb roasts proved to be the stronger ones: Upon dropping out of Catholic high school in Sydney, Folk began a chefs apprenticeship, training in a modern Australian restaurant under a European chef who stressed local, seasonal ingredients. After four years, she went to Europe for a six-month pleasure trip. “I didn’t work anywhere,” she said. “I ate. And traveled. It was awesome.”

Folk’s sister lived in Aspen, and in 2000 Folk moved here, taking a job at Olive’s, the Todd English restaurant that was in the St. Regis hotel at the time. She began at the bottom rung, as chef de partie, and worked her way up to banquet chef, sous chef, chef de cuisine. She left Olive’s to help open the fine dining spot Lulu Wilson, starting as the executive sous chef.

But Folk’s husband, Doug, is also a chef – he is currently executive sous chef at the Maroon Creek Club – and starting a family with two parents working nights at high-end restaurants wasn’t possible. So when she applied for the open position at the Aspen Elementary and Middle schools, Folk was thinking about the emotional well-being of her own family, not the physical health of hordes of young Aspenites.

“I didn’t understand the problems we had in this country,” she said of her thinking on lunch-room issues at the time she took the school job, three years ago.

But Folk took the title of lunch lady seriously, enrolling in a nutrition class at CMC and doing a lot of reading on kids, health and food. Also, the year before Folk arrived on campus, two women had come into the school kitchen to implement a cooking-from-scratch program, taking over a service that had been contracted out by a for-profit business. The new program was a step in the right direction, but the two women had committed to just one year, and left with the program still in its early stages.

And they didn’t have Folk’s kitchen skills, savvy and moxie. Folk points out that, before she arrived, the schools were serving regular ketchup, which contains high fructose corn syrup. Under Folk, the schools makes their own ketchup. With considerable help from Slow Food Roaring Fork, a garden was installed on school grounds, and Folk has spearheaded a mini-farmers market once a year, selling the greens, potatoes and other produce they have grown. With the money from the market, Folk buys a whole cow from Basalt’s Cap K Ranch, so when she serves beef – about three times a month, including Taco Tuesdays every other week – it is from a local, grass-fed animal. She coordinates a CSA – a community supported agriculture program, which allows consumers to buy produce directly from a farmer. The CSA is for teachers and staff only, but the relationship with the farmers pays off in the occasional box of leftover tomatoes on her loading dock.

To raise awareness of what she is doing, and to get parents involved in the food program, Folk throws an annual Thanksgiving feast: locally raised turkeys, parents sitting with their kids at the lunch tables, a guest chef from Cache Cache restaurant.

“The line was out the door. We ran out of turkey. It was huge,” Folk said of the event in the first year. “It’s to encourage parents to join their child, sit down, eat, talk about the food you’re eating.”

• • • •

A couple years ago, Folk was approached by Children’s Health Foundation, an Aspen-based organization dedicated to improving kids’ health, asking if she’d be interested in spreading her knowledge and energy around Colorado. With financial assistance from LiveWell Colorado, another group that addresses child-health issues, Folk was sent in January of 2011 to a two-week “boot camp” presented by Cook for America. Under Kate Adamick, a lawyer-turned-food advocate, Folk learned how to teach the methods she was using in Aspen to other school districts.

“She’s hardcore. Intensive,” Folk said of Adamick. Folk was then sent, as a trainee, to Greeley, Colorado Springs, Aurora and Glenwood Springs “to teach them how to cook from scratch, how to handle finances. And let them know it can be done.”

What Folk saw in those Colorado lunchrooms was a combination of horrifying and inspiring. “When I went to those other schools and saw what was in their freezers and dry storage – it’s all prepackaged, processed. Even the fruit is canned,” she said.

At the same time, the interest in what she was teaching was enormous, with lunchroom chefs coming from Arizona to participate. “All these schools are implementing it. It’s got the drive behind it,” she said.

On the national level, the Obama administration has made efforts recently to raise the standards for school lunches – boosting whole grains, limiting sodium. The Aspen schools are not bound by federal regulations; as only a relatively small percentage of students qualify for financial assistance, Aspen is not part of the National School Lunch Program. But Folk keeps an eye on what is happening in the bigger world of school lunches.

“The slight changes they made were good,” she said of a recent proposal by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “But I still think what we’re doing is better. They consider pizza sauce a vegetable. I don’t. And I don’t consider French fries a vegetable.”

Lunch at Aspen Elementary and Middle schools costs $4.50, which is more expensive than most places (and more expensive, by about $1.25, than it was in Aspen several years ago). Still, Folk says that the kind of cooking she is doing here is not elitist. She says she could do her food-from-scratch program anywhere. And being in Aspen hasn’t freed her from financial pressure; she’ll negotiate with suppliers to get milk at a penny less per carton.

“Obviously, the budget is huge,” she said. “The district wanted to know if the program could work without losing money. We don’t make a profit – but we can’t lose money.” Folk added that it took two years, but the program is now “financially sound.”

More than the federal bureaucracy or the local school board, Folk has parents to contend with. At one point, she told me the essence of her job was “parent education.”

“I have parents who say, ‘But I want Johnny to have chocolate milk – he’ll burn off those extra calories,'” she said. “What I know is, chocolate milk has an extra 12 grams of sugar in it. Over the course of your school years, that can be 60 pounds. Now, they might be playing football every day and drinking a can of Coke and eating a donut. But down the road, they’re not going to be playing football every day.

“You can tell – the kids who eat their broccoli, their parents are sitting down to dinner with them, showing them what to eat.”

One set of adults that has a vast appreciation for Folk’s efforts is the teachers. Rather than run in fear from the lunchroom, the teachers flock to it. On days when there are leftovers, Folk will send an email to the teachers, who can buy containers of chicken teriyaki or roast turkey to feed their families.

“I never used to eat here,” Beth Wille, a kindergarten teacher in her 17th year at the Aspen schools, said. “It wasn’t gross, but it was more like baked fish sticks, pre-packaged stuff. Now I eat her. Most of the teachers eat here. Tenille’s food is excellent and she rocks.”

Folk, too, is pleased with her career move. “I could be doing private work. I could work in a restaurant and make a lot more money,” she said. “But these kids are awesome. There’s a huge reward in this.”

As for the kids, Folk knows their bodies will benefit what she is giving them. And she believes they have some appreciation for the food she makes, even if she is constantly juggling kid-friendly items with health-friendly ingredients.

But the culture of the school lunchroom is an ingrained thing. Folk tells me that students are often asking her about Jell-O – even the youngest kids, who have never had Jell-O in the Aspen cafeteria.

“They ask, ‘When do we get Jell-O again?’ And it was four years ago the last time they had it,” she said. “They’re never getting Jell-O again.”

stewart@aspentimes.com