From Aspen to Silt, it’s fresh food and less junk at school |

From Aspen to Silt, it’s fresh food and less junk at school

Katie Redding
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado

When a new healthy lunch program caused the chocolate milk to disappear from the cafeteria at Cactus Valley Elementary School in Silt, one politically savvy fourth-grader circulated a petition demanding its return.

He collected 104 signatures, said Principal Lisa Whitmore.

But the principal held firm ” and tried to educate the chocolate lover on the sugar content of his favorite drink.

“He understood it,” she said. “But he didn’t agree with it.”

This year, almost every school from Aspen to Rifle has overhauled its school lunch program ” adding more fresh vegetables, cutting back on the chicken nuggets, and tossing the chocolate milk.

But between picky kids, the high cost of fresh food, and government regulations ” not to mention budding chocolate milk activists ” districts have their work cut out for them.

Nonetheless, say local food service directors, it’s time to change.

Like their counterparts across the nation, valley schools are reacting to a startling rise in weight gain among American children. According to the Chez Panisse Foundation, childhood obesity has tripled in the last three decades.

And in a disconcerting recent prediction, the Center for Disease Control estimated that one in three children born in 2000 will develop type-two diabetes. For Hispanic and African-American students, the odds rise to one in two.

On a recent visit to Aspen, New York lawyer-turned-school-lunch-activist Kate Adamick told an audience of Aspen and Basalt mothers about a Santa Barbara pediatrician who had to buy a new scale because his young patients started weighing in at more than 250 pounds.

“We are killing our kids,” concluded Adamick.

Despite her New York address, Adamick has been a driving force in the local school lunch changes.

In 2005-06, the Aspen-based Children’s Health Foundation funded a study by Adamick that found a lack of nutrition education in the valley and a prevalence of saturated and trans fats in school food. Sales of soft drinks, Doritos and Skittles, the study said, “dominated the school nutrition landscape.” Since then, the foundation has flown Adamick in to provide guidance in varying degrees for the districts.

Four years later, the three districts between Aspen and Rifle have developed three very different approaches to school lunch reform.

But one thing is clear: The chocolate milk won’t return any time soon.

Walk into Aspen’s elementary or middle schools at lunchtime, and you’ll find grilled cheese on whole-wheat bread; “tomato” soup with a base of roasted carrots, celery and potatoes; locally-grown organic apples and pears; organic carrot sticks, and a salad bar. Drink choices include non-organic and organic milk as well as local, organic apple juice. Children use compostable or reusable trays and slurp soup from compostable bowls with compostable spoons.

Starting this year, the district has taken an all-or-nothing approach to reforming school lunch at its middle and elementary schools. No processed foods are served, and fresh and organic and local ingredients are used whenever available. Dessert ” and in fact, all sugar ” has been banished.

Gone, too, are the chips and sugary drinks were once served at the Aspen Middle School.

Instead, bushels of organic apples are available at the entrance to each school for kids, teachers or parents who need a snack.

However, the district’s compromise has been to let the high school students continue to chow down on cheeseburgers, french fries, quesadillas, pizza, Powerade and Arizona iced tea. Superintendent Diana Sirko said there are no plans to reform the high school lunch in the foreseeable future.

The new program in the lower grades is the brainchild of Katie Leonaitis and Mary Whalen, the district’s two new food providers. The two were hired after a district wellness advisory committee advocated for a healthier lunch program, according to Aspen School Board member Charla Belinski.

Despite years of cooking professionally, both Whalen and Leonaitis say that learning to cook for kids wasn’t easy.

“The first two-and-a-half to three months were very, very difficult,” said Leonaitis at the end of the first semester. “But now that we understand how a large production runs, it’s just a different way of thinking.”

There was the Asian rice bowl they worked so hard on ” but the kids just picked out the chicken and left everything else. On the other hand, they were sure the baked tilapia would be a flop ” but the kids ate it up.

Just seven months in, the two have developed a toolbox full of ways to help kids eat healthier food. For example, they’ve become experts at “hiding” vegetables in meals kids can already identify and already like ” such as the roasted vegetable base in the tomato soup.

And before introducing a new vegetable, said kindergarten teacher Beth Wille, the two cooks ask her to teach her class about it.

Like its counterparts in Silt, the Roaring Fork School District (which operates schools in Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs) also had a mini “uprising” over the elimination of chocolate milk, according to Michelle Hammond, the district’s new director of food service.

Further protest mostly has been quelled by the slow demise of other favorites like chicken nuggets, said Hammond.

Unlike Aspen, the Roaring Fork School District participates in the National School Lunch Program, accepting government money in return for following government guidelines.

Thus it must buy surplus agricultural products from the U.S. Department of Agriculture with all its federal reimbursement money, for example. It must also serve lunches that meet federal requirements. And, in the state of Colorado, it must accept state caps on its school lunch prices, said Hammond.

“Parents say why don’t you provide all this fresh stuff?” explained Superintendent Judy Haptonstall. “Well we can’t just charge whatever we want to.”

But consultant Adamick may be able to help: Following a recent visit to every lunch room in the district, she is now writing a report to suggest possible changes that would still meet the government regulations.

In the meantime, Hammond is working on changes, with the help of involved parents, who have formed “Little Sprouts” lunch reform groups at several schools.

Unlike Aspen’s total overhaul, the Roaring Fork School District is taking “little, gradual steps” toward healthier lunches at every school this year, said Hammond.

French fries and potato chips have gone by the wayside, for example, replaced by local, organic apples and oranges. Salad bars are available to all students. Dessert is served only on special occasions. And Hammond recently replaced some of the district’s meat with local hormone- and antibiotic-free beef, thanks to an anonymous $5,000 donation.

Still, the district still serves two processed lunches a week. That’s because food directors are required to buy their federal commodities the year prior, Hammond explained. Last year’s director purchased the frozen pre-made food, so now she must use it. But for next year, she has purchased only unprocessed chicken and cheese with her commodity dollars, she said.

This year’s hybrid approach can give school meals a sort of split personality. Last Wednesday morning, for example, Crystal River Elementary School in Carbondale served milk and fresh apples for breakfast, but also sugar donuts and Trix-flavored yogurt.

“The kids, their favorite days are still the most unhealthy days,” acknowledged Basalt Middle School principal Jeremy Voss. “The chicken nuggets are still really popular.”

The district also still has vending machines. And in the high school and middle school cafeterias, it sells snacks like Nantucket Nectars, Ritz Bitz, homemade cookies and trail mix. School lunch advocates like Adamick often denounce such snacks, arguing that students fill up on the snacks and skip the meal altogether.

However, noted Basalt’s Voss, the schools have worked hard to offer healthier snack choices to students. It recently replaced the Powerade in its vending machines with water, for example.

When the Garfield School District decided to cook everything from scratch, it brought in a cooking instructor who announced she would begin by teaching knife use.

“I thought, are you kidding me?” said Dora Lerma, the kitchen manager at Cactus Valley Elementary School. “What’s there to learn about using a knife?”

A lot, she realized ” especially when one only has a few hours to cook from scratch for hundreds of children. She’s now adding knife use to a long list of cooking skills she’s gained this year.

“We even make our own bread crumbs,” she said.

A few years ago, the district eliminated snack food sales and added more fruits and vegetables, said Susan Beecraft, director of nutrition.

“This year, we decided to take that a step further and get rid of processed food totally, and go with all fresh hot dishes and home-cooked meals,” Beecraft said. The district agreed to adopt every single recommendation from the 2005-6 study and be the “pilot school” for the Children’s Health Foundation’s “Healthy Lunch Program.”

Now, at every school, the food is made from scratch, she said, even the bread. The district has also added salad bars at every elementary school, which it plans to soon expand to the middle and high schools. Dessert is served only on special occasions.

And of course, the schools did away with chocolate milk.

Like Aspen’s Leonaitis, Beecraft has found that the new lunch program is also a vehicle for education. Teachers now teach lessons on rutabagas before they’re introduced in the lunch line, for example. Some kids have even been observed in the lunch line learning what broccoli is, she said.

On a Monday last week, students dined on Tuscan vegetables, ham-and-cheese melts in whole-wheat tortillas, milk, apples, pineapple, oranges and a “bottomless” salad bar.

Watching the students bring their trays back, Lerma evaluated their leftover food with a sharp eye.

“The tortillas aren’t going, but the ham and cheese is gone,” she observed, critically. “My Tuscan vegetables don’t seem to be a hit either.”

But meanwhile, kids all over the room had raised their hands to request a second trip to the salad bar.

Though they don’t have final numbers, Superintendent Diana Sirko said she expected the new lunch program to cost the Aspen School District about $30,000 more this year than last, costs the district will pay out of its general fund. Costs have increased because the previous food service provider did not charge the district ” in return for being allowed to use the kitchen for her catering service.

In the Roaring Fork School District, according to Food Service Director Michelle Hammond, many lunch changes have been funded through donations and grants, including a recent $21,000 Colorado Department of Education grant for Crystal River Elementary School to buy more fresh fruits and vegetables.

In order to save, Hammond is also making changes in how she spends money. For example, next year the district will buy food in bulk and store it in a warehouse belonging to the Mesa County Valley School District. Hammond expects the move to save the district $6,000 a year.

“Our department is self-supporting,” she explained. “We don’t receive funding from the school district. So in order for us to serve fresh fruits and veggies, we need to find alternative ways ” other than selling lots of alternative junk.”

In the Garfield School District, Kate Bailey at the Children’s Health Foundation said she expects the financial analysis of the pilot “Lunch for Life” program to be finished in a few weeks. But Susan Beecraft, director of nutrition, said she doesn’t think the new program has cost the district any more.

“Food costs have gone up,” she said, “and processed foods have gone up as much as fresh food.”

It takes more effort to prepare the fresh meals, she said, but the kitchen staffs have been willing to “kick it up,” to finish the extra work in the allotted hours.

“It’s just the right thing to do,” said Beecraft.

For all of the the latest edition of the Aspen Times Weekly, go to

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Aspen and Snowmass Village make the Aspen Times’ work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.


Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User


See more