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Lunch, Elevated

Colorado is at the forefront of school-food reform, thanks to from-scratch meals.

September 2012

It’s lunchtime at Soda Creek Elementary in Steamboat Springs. The cafeteria sounds like a playground but smells more like a tapas bar: Mussel shells peek out from plates of paella that quickly disappear into hungry bellies. No, this isn’t a special occasion menu. It’s a typical lunch at Soda Creek, which, like many Colorado schools, has replaced processed foods with healthy, made-from-scratch meals. 

Starting in the 1980s, districts across the country phased out lunch ladies to introduce heat-and-serve convenience foods—loaded with fat, sodium, and sugar. More recently, Colorado’s childhood obesity rate has increased by 23 percent—a bigger leap than any other state but Nevada. So today, the state is implementing some of the nation’s most comprehensive school-food reforms. To date, 64 Colorado school districts (one-third of the total) have participated in culinary “boot camps” with LiveWell Colorado, a nonprofit that is pushing for all Colorado children to have access to healthy food by 2022. Funded largely by the Colorado Health Foundation and a recent $1 million gift from Vail Resorts’ CEO Rob Katz, the trainings have helped schools replace reheating technology with real chefs and obtain grants for kitchen appliances. 

Smaller districts in rural and mountain towns have achieved the speediest makeovers, some of which larger districts can imitate. Durango’s 9-R District has incorporated local produce, flour, and meat into students’ meals. Telluride has replaced chicken nuggets with house-made (read: lower in preservatives, richer in nutrients) pot pies. And Steamboat Springs is filling plates with from-scratch Cantonese pork and tandoori chicken—prepared in one central kitchen, then delivered daily to the city’s three other schools. 

Districts that feed 20,000-plus kids (compared to Steamboat’s 1,000) face greater policy hurdles than their small-town counterparts, but changes are in the works: This year, 100 percent of Denver Public Schools will have a salad bar; Greeley already makes 80 percent of its meals from scratch; and Harrison School District in Colorado Springs has axed desserts and sweetened drinks. “We see school-food reform as a key way to reduce obesity among our youth,” says Gabriel Guillaume, LiveWell’s vice president of community investment. “You’d be hard-pressed to find another state with so many people who want to make this change.”

5280.com Exclusive: Get a taste of what schools are serving these days, with this sample of elementary school lunch menus for the Steamboat Springs School District:

#1:

Pasta Naples Style
Assorted Breads
Shaved Zucchini/Fennel Salad

#2:

Sautéed Chicken with Coconut/Ginger Sauce
Carrot Cucumber Acar with Fried Garlic

#3:

Tandoori Chicken
Coconut Chutney
Cucumber Raita
Bulgur Pilaf with Pine Nuts and Currant