New lunch service at local schools |

New lunch service at local schools

John Colson
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” Aspen’s elementary and middle school students will be eating lunch of a different sort when classes begin later this month.

But not all that different from what they’re used to, at least not at first, said one of the managers of the new, in-house food service program.

The youngsters’ lunches no longer will be prepared by Lilly’s Valley, the catering company that has been serving lunches at Aspen elementary and middle schools for

the last few years.

The caterers were not paid, per se, but get to use the schools’ kitchens for their own business purposes, and get to keep whatever profit they can from selling the lunches to kids.

Instead of that system ” which involved no cash outlay by the district beyond the cost of building the kitchens in the first place ” the new program will be run by two women dedicated to the idea that bringing healthy foods, locally grown if possible, is a critical component of education.

Aspen High School will continue to have its school lunch program run by local chef Jeff Spiroff, who also runs the food service operation at Aspen Valley Hospital.

The prospect of the switch, while cheered by school officials, has at least one parent alarmed about the possibility that her children will not eat the lunches sold at the elementary school.

“I’m terrified about what’s coming,” said Rebecca Driscoll, who will have two youngsters at Aspen Elementary School this fall. “All good intentions aside, elementary school kids do not eat vegetables.”

Looking back a couple of years, Driscoll said of Lilly Guns, proprietor of Lilly’s Valley, “I thought she had done a really good job.” Driscoll explained that in her view the school’s lunches were “as healthy as possible” with fresh fruits, some raw vegetables such as carrots and celery, and a variety of other foods.

The changeover, said Superintendent Diana Sirko, is part of the district’s effort to bring healthier food choices into its lunch programs, a topic that has been discussed for some time at school board meetings.

“We’re actually running our own program,” said Sirko, adding that the goal is “to bring a strong wellness component to the program.”

Guns reportedly did not submit a proposal when the district advertised in late June.

In fact. Sirko said, no one submitted a proposal until the second advertisement, in mid-July, and Guns was not among those who applied for the job.

Guns said this week that she was not told until last week that she would not be doing the school lunch program this year,

But, Sirko emphasized, “This is not any kind of statement against Lilly’s Valley. We certainly invited Lilly to apply.”

And, according to school board member Charla Belinski, who has been talking about making changes to the school lunch program since she was elected, Guns was a part of the discussion from the beginning.

“She was very helpful,” Belinski said, in helping a parents group define what they were after and identifying other districts that had gone through similar changes.

For example, Belinski said, the parents learned that the Berkeley, Calif. schools had changed their food service program after adopting an official “wellness program” mandated by the federal government in order for school districts to qualify for federal lunch subsidies.

The two women who will be taking over the program ” Katie Leonaitis of Old Snowmass and Mary Whalen of Carbondale ” have had experience in alternative food services. They will be in charge of a crew of about a half-dozen cooks and servers doling out meals to kids at the two schools.

Leonaitis and Whalen, in a telephone interview on Tuesday, said they plan to “initially” offer much the same types of food as have been offered in the past, but that over time they plan to change to healthier choices, including organic foods.

“It’s so costly to make these changes,” said Leonaitis, and organic products are not always easy to get in the formats that fit with school cafeterias. An example, she said, is organic milk, which is not only expensive, it is generally not available in the small containers typically used in school cafeterias.

The two women, who will be full-time salaried employees at the district, have been involved in the food service industry in different ways for some time.

Leonaitis, who is part of the valley’s Slow Food Movement, also has worked with the Aspen Skiing Company and the Cooking School of Aspen. In addition, she has worked with Aspen Elementary School to establish a garden on the school grounds, which she plans to incorporate into the school’s overall educational curriculum.

Whalen, too, has been involved in the catering business for years.

The two will be assisted in the opening months of the program by David Avalos and Pam Davis, who run the food services programs for the Glenwood Springs schools.

The changeover in the school lunch program will be discussed at the Aug. 18 Aspen School Board meeting, at the district office on the schools’ Maroon Creek Road campus.

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