So, dude, what’s for lunch? | AspenTimes.com
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So, dude, what’s for lunch?

Mark Fox/The Aspen Times
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And the winner is … dogs. Hot dogs, corn dogs, pigs in a blanket. At least that’s what local elementary school students choose for lunch, when given a choice.

Thankfully, they aren’t the ones deciding what’s for school lunch, day in and day out.But what are schools serving our kids? And should we be concerned?Nutrition and children is a hot topic, and for good reason. Obesity is a national epidemic, and adults aren’t the only ones affected – a 2002 Centers for Disease Control study showed that 16 percent of Colorado high schoolers were overweight or at risk of becoming overweight. That’s a lot of fat kids.Doctors are concerned. Educators are concerned. Legislators are concerned.

In fact, Colorado lawmakers are debating a bill that would restrict what can and can’t be sold in school vending machines. On the national level, Congress in 2004 demanded that all schools with a federally funded meals program develop and enact a wellness policy to address nutrition and physical activity by the start of the 2006-07 school year.Locally, the debate has spurred a study of at-school eating habits by the Aspen-based Children’s Health Foundation; the report is scheduled for release in February. It has also led the Aspen School District to create a task force charged with crafting a nutrition policy, and the Roaring Fork School District has begun rethinking its food-service program.”The wellness policy is coming at a good time, in my estimation,” says Lori Burgess, food service director for the Roaring Fork School District. “We can do better for our children.”Still, as kids grow older, choices about what to eat for lunch become increasingly their own. Kids become more demanding; schools offer more choices; and the 7-Eleven is just around the corner.”I know we can’t eliminate bad foods from coming into school from the outside, but at least we won’t be fueling that fire for anyone,” says Burgess.

One look around local lunchrooms and it’s obvious that school administrators are but one piece of the puzzle. Plenty of parents pack a lunch for their children; others have clearly steered their kids toward good food choices from the beginning.”A large part of the burden for what kids eat falls on the parents,” says Aspen School District Assistant Superintendent Bev Tarpley, noting that the Roaring Fork Valley, and especially Aspen, is health-conscious. “I think one piece of any nutritional plan is choice; you have to let them have choices. But you can teach them what’s good and what isn’t.”

Tomato, mozzarella and basil salad, organic yogurt, homemade meatloaf with mashers and gravy – Aspen High School’s menu is hardly your standard school fare.”It’s real different than anywhere I’ve been,” says Tarpley, who oversees the district’s food-service program. In fact, all three schools on the district’s Maroon Creek campus dispel the school cafeteria stereotype to some degree, serving kids a mix of school standards – Sloppy Joes, tater tots and little boxes of milk are on the elementary school menu – with fresh fruits, vegetables and a whole lot more.The reasons are several.First, the people providing food for the district are privately contracted; the programs they run are self-supporting. At the high school, Jeff Spiroff, or “Chef Jeff” as he’s widely known, dictates the menu; he also handles catering services for Aspen Valley Hospital. At the middle and elementary schools, longtime local caterer Lily Guns is in charge. Spiroff has worked with the district for years, while this is Guns’ first year.As business owners, Spiroff and Guns set the prices. It’s $3.75 for a hot lunch at AES and AMS; prices are à la carte at AHS, but a burger and fries will run you $4.50. By comparison, lunch at Basalt Elementary School costs $2.10.

But it’s worth the price, according to the hordes of kids who pack the high school cafeteria every day.”It’s awesome,” says freshman Ben Armstrong, his friends nodding in agreement.”Come out here for lunch sometime and you’ll see … there’s something homemade every day,” adds Tarpley. “And so much to choose from.”The high school’s offerings include daily specials, hot dogs, hamburgers, quesadillas, pizza, french fries and the like; the neighboring “cafe,” which stays open all day, has soups, salads, bagels, wraps and snacks – both healthy (like fruit, yogurt and energy bars) and not-so healthy (like potato chips, candy and soda).

At the middle and elementary school, the offerings are much more controlled. In fact, elementary school students are limited to the hot lunch of the day, a bagel and cream cheese or a jelly sandwich (AES serves nothing with peanuts because several students have severe allergies, and everyone knows how kids like to swap food!); fresh fruit and cut vegetables are also there for the taking, as well as a simple dessert. Middle school students are offered slightly more freedom, with salad as a daily lunch option and snacks for purchase.”It’s still very carefully controlled, but there is a little bit of choice at this stage,” says Tarpley. “The idea is not to supplant the lunch offering, but to supplement it.”Another reason the Aspen School District has considerable latitude in its food-service program is that it doesn’t participate in the National School Lunch Program. The program, which provides low-cost or free lunches to more than 28 million children across the United States each day, sets nutritional standards and offers certain foods to school districts at a discount.According to Tarpley, it doesn’t make sense for a district as small as Aspen’s – where under 10 percent of students qualify for the federal low-cost or free lunches – to participate because of the time-consuming paperwork and administrative details required. Rather, the district simply pays for kids who qualify for reduced or free lunches.

“And then we can keep better control of the food being served,” explains Tarpley. “If we don’t like the carrots that are being served, we can ask [Spiroff or Guns] to get different ones.”Not that that has been much of a problem, she says. Since Spiroff and Guns run their own businesses, they have to please students and parents; since their contracts are renewed annually, they also have to please school administrators and adhere to school policy.”We think they do a great job finding out what kids will eat, while staying within our ideas for healthy eating,” says Tarpley, pointing out that both Spiroff and Guns make a concerned effort to use, for example, low-fat meats in their dishes. “Chef Jeff does a lot of real cheffing up here, and Lily is really in tune with what the kids like.”

The Roaring Fork School District is similarly concerned with finding foods that kids will eat but that won’t make nutritionists skin crawl. It hasn’t been easy, however; just last year, middle school kids could easily lunch on high-sugar “sports” drinks and Little Debbie snack cakes.”We’re making changes, slowly but surely,” says Burgess, who was hired this school year to run – and revamp, it seems – the district’s in-house food-service program.Comprising nearly a dozen schools from Basalt to Glenwood Springs, the Roaring Fork School District does participate in the National School Lunch Program. At Basalt Elementary School, more than half of the student body qualifies for free or reduced-cost meals (lunch costs 40 cents under the program; the school, in turn, is reimbursed $1.92).And while the federal program does set nutritional standards – under which a french fry is considered a vegetable – it does not fully dictate what can be served. And this, says Burgess, is where a careful balancing act begins. She must create menus and stock “grab and go” items that meet federal standards, are within budget and that the diverse student body will actually eat.At the elementary school level, it’s relatively easy. There is one hot lunch choice each day; all served with fruit and/or vegetable, as well as white or chocolate milk (and most choose chocolate). The menu looks much like Aspen Elementary School’s menu.

It’s a different story at Basalt Middle School. Unlike in Aspen, middle school students in Basalt students currently have a lot of freedom. The cafeteria there serves up the same hot meal as the elementary school, plus à la carte items ranging from pizza to shrimp poppers, as well as a baked-potato bar, salad bar, nachos, soup and a wide array of snacks like chips, fruit roll-ups, ice cream and more. The high school’s offerings are generally the same.But that’s all about to change. With Burgess at the helm, and new laws to back her up, the Roaring Fork School District’s food-service philosophy is getting a healthy review. “Basalt Middle School has a huge à la carte arena, and it’s going to be a shock when a lot of those products are gone,” she predicts. “We are going to get rid of the higher fat, sugary items and bring back a cooking philosophy rather than a heat-and-serve one. I can’t implement the new wellness program with things like Cheetos and ice cream for sale.”And it’s not just the kids who will complain, she says. “We have parents who are going to be upset because their kids are disappointed,” Burgess says. She speaks from experience: She got calls after she removed the Little Debbie products.

“Some of these kids have never seen healthy food choices – Wendy’s and McDonald’s are what they know for food. But I know from my education and restaurant experience that there are products out there that are both appealing and healthy,” says Burgess, who was a private caterer before joining the district. “We will just keep introducing new items, and slowly and surely everyone will adjust.”Jeanne McGovern’s e-mail address is jmcgovern@aspentimes.com


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