Food For Thought

Cooks at Centennial Elementary prepare dough for oatmeal honey rolls they serve at lunch.

By Kristin Pazulski

Photography by Adrian DiUbaldo

Leo Lesh’s food service enterprise includes 156 locations and serves about 38,700 lunches per day. He’s not open on the weekends, charges just $1.40 per meal (if customers pay full price, though many do not) and he gets just $2.72 per meal beyond that charge to cover all his food, labor and operations costs.

Most would say it’s an impossible feat. A dying business, one that won’t make it, but this is no ordinary food service business. And Lesh, executive director of Denver Public Schools Food and Nutrition Services, has not only managed to keep DPS’s school lunch program chugging along, he’s slowly improving the nutritional side of a traditionally unhealthy meal.

And just in time too. While Lesh has been looking for ways to reduce sodium in cheese and fat in milk, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been developing guidelines that will require him to do just that.

Spurned by a ballooning obesity rate in children, in January the USDA proposed new nutritional guidelines for school meals based on recommendations in a report by the National Academies’ Institute of Medicine. The guidelines could be approved by November of this year, and would increase fruits, vegetables and whole grains in school meals, as well as require fat-free and low-fat milk in lieu of whole milk. They would also reduce sodium and saturated fats in the students’ food, among other requirements.

Although Colorado is the country’s leanest state according to Colorado Health Foundation’s Health Report Card, childhood obesity is a growing problem in the state. In four years, between 2003 and 2007, Colorado dropped from being third in the country for leanest children to 23rd, the foundation reported, and there are 24,000 more obese 10- to 17-year-olds in Colorado now than in 2006.

Under the leadership of Lesh, DPS is already working on improving those statistics with a number of programs aimed at improving students’ eating habits, and therefore their health.

“We’ve always known that nutrition is essential to learning, and so if we’re going to have an education system and you want kids to be able to read, write and do math, and graduate and lower the achievement gaps, it has to start with nutrition,” he said. “If you leave that out of the equation, nothing else is going to matter.” But it’s not easy, and takes a lot of help (and financial finagling).

This year, two programs have made a significant impact on the quality of DPS lunches in some schools. First is scratch cooking. At this time last year, prepping bread for Centennial Elementary school lunches involved taking the hamburger rolls out of the plastic bags and slapping the precooked commodity-meat burgers on after a warm-up in the oven. Now, the kitchen staff arrives at 6 A.M. to prep for the first round of students at 10:30. The rolls are baked fresh and the burgers are pulled raw from the freezer, having been sent from a Ranch Foods Direct in Colorado Springs, and are cooked that morning. Burritos are rolled in Commerce City-made tortillas and smothered with Denver’s Ready Foods’ chili.

Currently 60 DPS schools are scratch cooking, up from 30 at the beginning of the school year. And more will be trained this summer.

A cook at Centennial Elementary tends to a mix for oatmeal honey rolls. All food is prepared from scratch everyday.“Making everything from scratch, even just the smell coming from the kitchen changes, like the breads … it just sort of changes the whole atmosphere,” said Max Young, with the Integrated Nutrition Education Program (INEP), which brings nutrition education to classrooms across the state.

Lesh has also installed about 85 salad bars in schools and has been reaching out to his distributors to find out exactly where the food comes from. Surprisingly, he found a lot of the food DPS has used over the years was already local.

“Most of what we get comes from Colorado anyway. What we concentrated on more so was [ensuring] the people we were buying it from … were able to identify where it came from,” Lesh said.

The second program taking root in DPS is school gardening. Partnering with SlowFood Denver and Denver Urban Gardens, DPS’s schools have about 50 gardens, mainly in elementary schools. Centennial Elementary school’s garden is one of the most productive. Last year, the garden produced so many pumpkins, Lesh bought them and made pumpkin and cranberry bread for three schools. The money was put back into the garden, which is managed by parents and funded by an INEP grant.

“This is the most sustainable project that we’ve seen so far because it keeps moving back into the school,” said INEP’s Young.

Financially, Lesh has to find the money to make these programs work. The salad bars brought a one-time cost of more than $100,000 (they were about $1,200 each), and the labor for scratch cooking is costly.

Student payment for the food offsets some costs, so an increase in student participation is celebrated. But this year’s increase of seven percent was a “wash” Lesh said, because of the additional costs cooking and the salad bars brought.

To find money, Lesh said he does creative cutting. “We look at everything monthly and say, ‘What can we do better?’” he said. The department, which does not use funds from the district’s general fun, has cut waste, inventory and staff, Lesh said. Instead of replacing computers as budgeted, the department paid to extend its warranty and saved $300,000, he added.

“If I can save a penny a meal just in food costs, that’s $80,000 a year. That’s what one penny did, in food. That’s only food. … All of a sudden when you’re talking about a 190-day school year for the meal program, and even more for the summer, you are starting to add up into real money. So that’s how we can afford to do some of the other things that we do. And as mentioned, Lesh has help.

On Feb. 4, Centennial Elementary school put on Fiesta Friday, a celebration of beans and burritos. Staff walked around in sombreros and handed out a magnet reminding students (and, if the magnet makes it home, their parents) of the benefits of eating beans and peas.

On the menu were burritos smothered in green chili, a bean soup decorated with tri-colored tortilla strips and pinto bean corn bread. There were burgers and fish sticks for the pickier eaters, the latter of which is still standard school-like food (SuperFoods Project Coordinator Anne Wilson said DPS is still trying to find a good way to serve fish), while the salad bar brimmed with a selection of kiwi slices, mandarin orange wedges, baby carrots and snap peas. Recipes for spicy corn salad and a veggie burrito were available for students to take home, and a sampling of foods featuring other types of beans, like chocolate soybean pudding and hummus, were passed around.

Fiesta Friday was a partnering of three different programs converging on Centennial, the star-pupil of DPS’s healthy-eating programs. The programs are INEP’s classroom projects, SuperFoods Project and KGNU’s radio show, Eat Your Radio, which is funded by an INEP grant.

In the classroom, students make food, like the hummus, through INEP programming, and then eat larger produced versions of the food in the cafeteria, supported by the SuperFoods Project. The KGNU program ensures that kids retain the healthy knowledge by having students (in this case, the fifth graders at Centennial) serve as radio journalists, interviewing and surveying friends and family about healthy eating and the classroom lessons.

“So the idea is we link what kids are learning in the classroom with what they are learning in the cafeteria,” Young said. Program organizer’s hope that this link helps students carry their lessons home. The take-home recipes and magnets, plus radio interviews with parents, help bring the message home, and although students might choose to eat chips and drink soda after school and urge their parents to buy Poptarts at the grocery store, at least the students are conscious they are choosing something unhealthy over better foods, Young said.

“I think that school lunch environments … kind of get a bad rap a lot of the times,” Young said, “But there’s huge advances in what they are offering and I think that if you can change that [school offerings] then you can change what the kids are choosing and their attitudes with it.”

“It’s not just a model of individual health,” she continued, “It’s trying to recognize that obviously one’s individual health is an effect of their environment.”

The students have definitely noticed a change in their meals, although school lunch, like airline and hospital food, is unlikely to break its poor-food stigma that easily.

“I think the first two years were way better than this year,” said Angelica Stevens, an eighth grader at Centennial, referring to changes in the food over the past three years. “Most of the food doesn’t have a lot of flavor,” she added while her friends around her agreed.

Lesh said his staff surveys students constantly. His staff and he create different foods for taste tests and also take requests. Just a few weeks ago, at George Washington High School, student requested a Hawaiian calzone with pineapples and ham. His staff is working out a way to meet the request under the nutritional guidelines; then they’ll bring the food to the students for a taste test.

“That’s how we keep developing menu items and [try to] keep the kids in, because it does get boring, you can’t help it,” he said.

But even with surveys and requests, satisfying these students is a nightmare no restaurateur would have to face.

“I have to feed 70,000 different palates. I don’t know anybody, never met anybody, that would go to the same restaurant for 190 straight days,” he said. “That’s what we ask these students to do.” •