Parents driving changes in Aspen school lunches |

Parents driving changes in Aspen school lunches

Katie Redding
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado
Jordan Curet The Aspen Times
ALL | The Aspen Times

ASPEN ” Gone are the cookies from lunchtime at the Aspen elementary and middle schools. In fact, there is no sugar to be found in the school kitchens, according to new food service provider Katie Leonaitis. Gone, too, are the chips and sugary drinks were once served at the Aspen Middle School.

Lunch at the schools last Friday instead consisted of grilled cheese on whole-wheat bread, “tomato” soup with a base of roasted carrots, celery and potatoes, locally-grown organic apple slices, pear slices, and organic carrot sticks. Middle school students also had a fully-stocked salad bar at their disposal.

Drink choices included milk, organic milk and local, organic apple juice.

Food was being served on compostable or reusable trays, and children ate their soup from compostable bowls with compostable spoons.

And at the entrance to the middle school were bushels of organic apples for kids, teachers or parents who need a snack.

The Aspen School District is hardly alone in its search to provide healthy, organic and locally grown food to its children.

Across the nation, school districts are reacting to a startling rise in childhood obesity levels ” which have tripled in the last three decades, according to the Chez Panisse Foundation ” and rising risk factors for disease.

In Aspen, as in many communities, changes to the school lunch program are the end result of a parent-driven process, according to Charla Belinski, one of the parents involved in implementing the new changes. About a year-and-a-half ago, she said, she began to hear parents murmur about high-fructose corn syrup or trans fats, locally-grown produce, seasonal meals ” and wonder how the Aspen School District might be able to improve its school lunch program.

“It always takes that in a district. It takes parents to start with, and then it takes someone else that believes in it,” said Mardell Burkholder, executive director of the Children’s’ Health Foundation, an Aspen-based nonprofit that works on bringing healthy lunch programs to schools.

Roughly a year ago, said Belinski (who is also an Aspen School Board member, but said she worked on the school lunch program simply as a concerned parent), a wellness advisory committee of parents and community members began meeting regularly.

They weren’t starting from scratch, however. They had mounds of data. Two years ago, the district invited the Children’s Health Foundation into its lunchrooms as part of a valleywide study of school lunches.

But they also wanted parent input. So last fall, they held an open parent meeting. They expected requests for grass-fed beef and organic milk, explained Belinski. But the roughly 40 parents, she said, mostly wanted the district to first focus on eliminating processed foods, or sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.

In June, the wellness committee presented its recommendations, which included suggestions for improving the school lunch program, to Superintendent Diana Sirko.

Sirko explained that it was clear to her the community had a desire to see changes at the elementary and middle schools. (No changes have been made with the high school lunch program, and Sirko does not expect that any will be.) When the previous contractor declined to bid on a revamped new program, Mary Whalen and Katie Leonaitis did.

Both trim, tiny and energetic, Leonaitis and Whalen laugh when asked about the last few months.

“We used to have meetings and Diana would say ‘have you asked yourselves why you are doing this?'” Whalen said.

Leonaitis had worked around food for about 20 years ” at Aspen Skiing Co., the Cooking School of Aspen, and in different restaurants. Whalen had had a healthy cooking business.

Still, learning to cook for kids wasn’t easy.

“The first two-and-a-half to three months were very, very difficult,” said Leonaitis. “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, said Whalen.

On the other hand, they were sure the baked tilapia would be a flop ” but the kids ate it up.

If there’s one thing she’s learned about cooking for kids, said Leonaitis, it’s “the simpler the better.”

“That would be one of the mantras of the year,” she reflected.

They’ve also realized that kids need to be introduced to new food before they will eat it. So when they’re going to introduce a new food at lunchtime, said kindergarten teacher Beth Wille, the two e-mail her information about the food and ask her to teach her class about it.

And in some cases, they’ve been able to “hide” vegetables in meals kids can identify and already like ” such as the roasted vegetable base in the tomato soup.

On Friday, second-grade student Kemper Locke said he likes the new lunches because “they have healthy food now.”

“I like every lunch,” he said.

His mom, Karen Locke, said Kemper has eaten lunch at school more often this year, and said she’s pleased with the changes, as well. She even eats lunch at school when she’s there volunteering, she said.

But parents Cheryl and Tom Erickson, eating lunch for the first time at Aspen Elementary School on Friday, weren’t so pleased with the new program.

Tom pronounced the food “all in all, bad.” And while he thought serving fresh fruits and vegetables was a good idea, he didn’t think many kids would actually eat them.

Cheryl said she’s still making lunches for their daughter, who hasn’t liked the food in either lunch program. And she added that there wasn’t much in the lunch for its $4.25 price.

Parents weren’t the only ones eating lunch with the students on Friday ” the lunchrooms also were sprinkled with teachers and administrators.

Kindergarten teacher Beth Wille said she eats the school lunch more often this year, and she raved about the teacher salad bar with organic greens and homemade dressing.

Sixth-grade teacher Matt Fields, who called the new lunch program “a major step forward,” also said he’s eating lunch more often at school.

And he thinks it’s good for the kids, as well. Last year, he said, students would often throw away the meal they’d paid for and buy the a la carte drinks and chips instead ” effectively getting charged twice for their lunch.

“Now they don’t really have that option, which I think is great,” he said.

As for the evidence, most of the lunch did appear to be disappearing off kids’ plates Friday. And while a number of apple slices and carrots found their way to the trash, there was also a steady trail of kids going back for seconds.

Sirko said the district hasn’t done a full analysis of this year’s numbers versus last year’s, but that preliminary data shows more kids are buying lunch this year ” and Whalen and Leonaitis said they have seen a steady rise in kids buying lunch over the course of the first semester.

Before she ran the school lunch program, Leonaitis helped build the school garden at the Aspen campus as a volunteer with Slow Food Roaring Fork.

Come spring, she’d like to start connecting the school garden program to the school lunch program, by going into the classroom to discuss the vegetables growing in the garden that they might see at lunch.

She’d also like to start cooking classes with the students, perhaps first with students in the extended day program.

By next summer, the district should have a compost system in place. The Pitkin County Landfill recently helped the district write a successful grant for an “earth tub,” a composting system for institutions. The four-foot tall, four-foot wide tub, with an augur in the middle to turn the compost, will allow them to recycle kitchen waste and trays back into the garden. Eventually, Leonaitis hopes to be able to teach kids to separate out their food, so waste food can be recycled, too.

Though they don’t have final numbers in, Sirko said she expected the new lunch program to cost the school about $30,000 more this year than last.

Right now, the district is shouldering the cost by paying it out of its general fund. But Sirko, Leonaitis and Wille have their eyes peeled for opportunities.

One option, said Sirko, would be to sign up for federal funding to support their free and reduced lunches. Currently the district pays between $22,000 and $23,000 to support kids who can’t afford to pay for lunch. Joining the program would be a financial boon, but it would also come with restrictions ” such as a requirement to buy agricultural surplus from the Department of Agriculture.

The Children’s Health Foundation’s Burkholder is also working to put together a buying cooperative of local schools, restaurants, hospitals and other food-service providers. Such a cooperative might be able to purchase directly from local farmers at a reduced cost, she speculated.

And Whalen and Leonaitis are searching out grants.

But Sirko said she thinks the additional cost is worthwhile. The district budget, she pointed out, is meant to be spent in order to educate kids. And learning to eat healthy is learning, too.

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