School board says no menu changes at Aspen schools |

School board says no menu changes at Aspen schools

Aspen High School seniors eat lunch on the beach outside of the school during Senior Bootcamp before the start of the school year in 2021.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

The Aspen School District Board dug in its heels on Wednesday to remain the only district in the state not to join the National School Lunch Program.

District staff presented a report comparing comparing the free lunch program to the district’s current program to the Board of Education, and members unanimously elected to stay with the district’s current food service department. The board also stressed to staff that they do not want to hear alternative food plans annually unless something better than the current program comes along.

“I think I would like to see us with the intent of continuing (the district’s current) program unless there is something that could possibly be better,” board member Stecey Weiss said at the end of the presentation. “I really have a hard time imagining that. I just don’t want to have it constantly coming back on the agenda here.”

Many other schools across the region and state have opted out of the federal lunch program, but Aspen is the only one to do so district-wide.

To supplement, the school district offers its own program for free and reduced lunch, plus waived fees for other school programs. According to the district, 91.9% of students pay full price for lunch. About 5.8% receive free lunch, and 2.3% pay a reduced rate.

Data from the Colorado Department of Education shows that schools that opt-in to the program average a 19% jump in school lunch participation, which suggests a gap between students that qualify for free or reduced lunch and those who qualify by government standards.

Superintendent David Baugh said he does not anticipate that much of a jump in participation should Aspen op-in to the program. But if it came to pass, that would cause a staffing and equipment shortage for schools.

He said that on any given day, the schools average about a 60%-70% student participation rate in school lunch. 

He also said that 139 families participate in the district’s supplemental program, and those families are accepted into the program largely on the honor system, as the district does not require tax documents to prove a certain income level. 

Board member Christa Geiszl noted that because of the small, tight-knit nature of the community, accountability in the program is still present even without stringent rules coming from the district. 

But officially, the poverty threshold under the district’s program is lower than the government program. And that, he said, would result in kids losing school programming-related benefits if the district opted in.

“But 30% of the kids that we currently support would lose that support for free and reduced lunch, for tuition for … any of the other and countless fees that schools have figured out how to charge (under the national program), but everybody in our free and reduced lunch gets that break,” Baugh said. “If we do go to the National School Lunch Program, 30% of our kids lose that benefit.”

He conceded that the district could parse out those benefits as two separate programs but said it would be a financial and administrative burden to do so.

Colorado voters approved Proposition FF in November 2022, which altered tax reductions on taxpayers who make $300,000 or more, allocating the revenue to reimburse participating schools to provide free meals to students and provide schools with local food purchasing grants and school food-related funding. 

Right now, the schools offset lunch costs through revenue from the lunch prices. If they opt in to the government program, they would be reimbursed from state and federal funds at a rate set by the government, which changes yearly. Currently the rate is $4.41 per lunch meal. 

For schools that opt-in, lunch is free for all students regardless of economic class. 

The school district projects a much lesser shortfall with sticking to the Aspen School District Food Service Department than going with the national plan.
Aspen School District/Courtesy image
School district projections based on reimbursements from the government show a greater budget shortfall.
Aspen School District/Courtesy image

In the district’s presentation comparing the two programs, the ASD Food Service Department budget shortfall was well below the Prop FF program projections. Revenue from the lunches is only $198,250 short of the $1 million in annual expenditures. 

For Aspen students, the price of their meal is based on whether they are in elementary, middle, or high school. It includes a hot lunch, fresh fruit and vegetables, salad bar, and milk — plus vegetarian and gluten-free options. 

  • High School $6.50
  • Middle School $5.50
  • Elementary School $4.50
  • The Cottage $4.50

The district Food Service Department is run by Tenille Folk for lunch at all three schools, plus an a la carte “cafe” at Aspen High School. 

She and other staff members expressed concern over the nutritional value, food waste, and staffing changes that could come about with opting in to the program. 

Students would need to take food from three of five food groups for the meal to qualify for reimbursement in the program, which she and staff said would lead to greater food waste. Something that her kitchens, she said, almost entirely avoids.

“If there’s cheese leftover from Nacho Day, that will go into the lasagna the next day, and so forth,” Folk said. “We also have the cafe grab-and-go items, which are great, especially for those kids that are leaving to go on the bus to Cedar Ridge or wherever for a sports activity. If we have any leftover lunch, we package it, keep it hot in the hot box, and they can take that meal and have it on the school bus with them as well.”

She also emphasized her department’s approach to graduating students from trays to round plates as they get older, which gives the meals greater dignity. 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Screen-Shot-2023-05-10-at-6.01.03-PM-1024×564.png This side-by-side comparison between National School Lunch Program requirements and Aspen School District practices shows how they differ.
Aspen School District/Courtesy image

The Prop FF would require state-selected vendors and would not allow students to get second servings of food for free. 

A la carte offerings or special events like catering from the Little Nell or French Day/BBQ Day would not be permitted if the district joins the free lunch program. 

School district staff, board members, and parents expressed overwhelming support to retain Aspen’s own food service department. 

Alyssa Shenk is a parent of two high schoolers and regularly volunteers in the lunch line. Although she said she voted for Prop FF, she does not believe that the school district should opt-in to the program. 

“If the program were to change, not only does it mean a lesser quality of food, limited variety, small portions, and no competitive options like the cafe, the barbecues, or other special lunch events, but I fear at the high school level in particular, it will push students and staff out of the commons for lunch, whether they go off campus to bring a lunch and or they bring a lunch in and eat somewhere else,” she said. 

Renovation plans for the Aspen High School Commons and cafeteria will come this summer to encourage students to stay on campus for their lunch time. “Think of a Skico-style experience,” the presentation read, with a new service line and community seating.


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