Farm-to-School Inspiration Sets District 11 Apart

After watching the breakthrough documentary “Food Inc.,” which takes a look inside America’s corporate-controlled food industry, Rick Hughes, director of Food & Nutrition Services for Colorado Springs School District 11, set out on a mission to find out all he could about the foods that he was feeding the students in his district.

After doing research and speaking with nutritionists and his district chef Brian Axworthy, the school system set out to eradicate processed foods, hormones and preservatives from the breakfast and lunch menus.

“I’m not a food scientist, but I know how I feel when I eat highly processed food, and I wanted our children to be able to have food that makes them feel good vs. food that may not be the food that will help them in the classroom,” Hughes said. “So it was easy for our whole team to get behind.”

Colorado Springs D-11 made a commitment to its students and community when it began the Good Food Project that by 2012 there would be no high fructose corn syrup, processed foods with dye and preservatives or meats with added hormones on the district’s school menus.

Today, parents can even log onto the school’s website and see the ingredients of every element of breakfast and lunch, down to the homemade ranch dressing and chili con carne with cheese. Fresh fruits and vegetables appear on the menu daily and there is a vegetable of the month, along with a weekly review of the menu by Axworthy because he wants the students “to love what they are eating.”

Axworthy, who graduated from IUP Academy of Culinary Arts in Pennsylvania, says he is proud to be a part of such a worthy cause.

“Long ago I decided that I didn’t want to just join the restaurant world to make money and put money in my pockets; I wanted to do some more with my life and my talents so I started teaching and it was just another way to help with the community value,” he said.

D-11 over the years has partnered with, Live Well Colorado and Ranch Foods Direct to provide the healthiest foods to the schools.

Galileo School of Math and Science, a D-11 school, even built the Galileo School greenhouse, which is a 42-foot diameter, growing space bio-dome, off-the-grid greenhouse that grows salad greens and herbs for D-11.

So now even the youngest of students will experience the flavors of homegrown lettuce and flavorful herbs.

Sunbelt Food service staff writer Ashley Bates recently spoke with Hughes and Axworthy about the exciting changes going on in school nutrition, their inspiration and the positive effect the menu changes have been on the students enrolled in D-11.

Q: First, tell me a little about the Good Food Project.
Hughes: What we believe in is based off of research that our team has done regarding our food system and the way our bodies process food and the impact on the brain. We made the commitment to our community that we wanted to eradicate processed foods in our schools by January 2012 based on what the market provides right now and to utilize local whenever possible and when financially feasible with the thin margins that we have. We have to make sure that we have a good value between the cost of food, paper and everything else that we are paying for in the school meal program. With the pennies that we have we can do that, and we want to give a good quality selection to 24,000 students each day across the city at 65 service locations. We’ve had, overall, a great response. If we have a loss one year it’s not a cause for great concern because we have so much – positive support from the community about the food we are serving their children.

Q: I read that your inspiration for the Good Food Project came from watching the documentary “Food Inc.” True?
Hughes: It wasn’t the Hollywood version of the documentary, (which was) pitching it as truth, but it was enough to create questions in my mind about what we were serving to our kids. So I started doing my own research, reading books and watching documentaries on the food system to formulate my own opinion. We have 300 employees, and we showed the “Food Inc.” movie right off the bat when we first started this to all of our kitchen managers and it was enough to get them going. Ever since then, we’ve just been giving them information as we find it about food and what it does to our bodies. And we want to support the local economy by buying local whenever possible. We use Ranch Foods Direct, a local cattle company. All their cattle is grass-fed, all-natural beef. We use them exclusively and it’s an amazing quality.

Q: Brian, why do you find it so important to serve the children nutritional food that they actually enjoy?
Axworthy: Our menu is tailored to what these kids actually want to eat. We looked at the menu and transformed it from processed products to all scratch cooking. Ultimately if we want the kids to eat it, it has to provide that nutrition, so it’s a balance right now on what they are willing to eat and how we can produce that in a nutritional format. Our goal is to provide better nutrition for the classroom, basically.

Q: Are you a professionally trained chef?
Axworthy: Yes. My resume is pretty diverse; I’ve worked at hotel resorts, I’ve been a chef at a hospital, a country club, convention centers. But I also became a culinary instructor for a local community college.

My background is pretty diverse and helps me in thinking outside of the box.

Q: Did you ever think that your career would take you to a school district?
Axworthy: That’s a great question. Not really, but when I met Rick and the team and we talked about doing this project and researching it, we knew that it’s a very noble cause and definitely worth being a part of.

Q: Do you get federal money to fund your food program? Or is it state money? How does that break down?
Hughes: We receive federal money for every meal that meets the Dietary Guidelines for Americans; the parameters we have for school meals are set by the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture). That money is different depending on whether the students qualify for free meals. We get that through reimbursement or reduced meals. There is a little bit of reimbursement for each one of those different categories.

Q: I know a lot of people always think that healthier is more expensive. Is that what you are finding?
Hughes: It does cost more to shop at Whole Foods than Walmart, but there are ways to make it happen, there are ways to do it without costing more. You basically shift your budget categories and you spend a little more on food and a little bit less on labor costs, or vice versa. You could buy a cheap processed burrito and pay the price for that or you could make a burrito from scratch with locally grown pinto beans, maybe local cheese and local tortillas from a local company and, even if it isn’t local, there is a way to put those things together with a better quality. That way, you know exactly what is in that burrito and you’re not relying on the chemical binders that are in the processed food.

Q: Brian, do you create the menu yourself for all the schools or how does that work?
Axworthy: Actually, what I do is get feedback from the students as well as our staff on a weekly basis and find out what things they like and what things they don’t. Then I gather all that and every semester I decide what we like, what we should revise. That has been very successful because we go through those steps and we have a wealth of knowledge on our team. They have helped me go into the right direction.

Basically, when I see a menu item, I ask, “how do we make that?” “how long is this part going to take?” “what does the transportation look like?” “what does the end product look like?” etc. This is how I determine what steps we need to take to get from point A to point B. In just a few semesters we are getting where we want to be. We have pancakes with fruit syrup on the menu because the kids want it. Originally they wanted maple syrup but that has high fructose corn syrup in it and our Good Food Project prohibits the use of that product. So we decided to make a fruit syrup.

Q: I’m sure you are excited spring is coming because of the selection of fresh vegetables and fruits. What kinds of things do you have planned for April or May?
Hughes: The California strawberry season just kicked up into high gear so we’ve featured strawberries this week. And we’ll be serving them next week as well as some clementines.

Q: I read that you have an employee boot camp. Can you tell me a little about that and explain how that works?
Hughes: We are partnered with LiveWell Colorado and its initial training program. (Editor’s Note: LiveWell Colorado’s Freshen-Up School Food Initiative encompasses several programs that work with schools directly to train cafeteria workers to prepare fresh, made-from-scratch meals, and motivate and educate students about making healthy food choices; see box.) We have been through that process for three summers and will continue to do that to increase the skill set of our staff.

Q: How much does breakfast and lunch cost at your schools?
Hughes: Breakfast prices range from $1.15 to $1.25 in our school district, depending on the grade level, and lunch ranges from $2.05 and $2.45.

Q: What would you say to other school districts across the country about why they should – become a part of the Farm to School movement?
Hughes: We think it is the best thing for kids. There is a lot of research out there that is pointing to what is in our food. The health of America is in a precarious place right now with the obesity rate and the issues that are resulting from obesity, and we are all paying for it in the healthcare system. Certainly exercise is a huge piece of that, but I don’t have control of physical education in our school district. But I do control serving 24,000 meals each day. So we can have an impact on the food system and there is research that shows that is true. We are buying into that, saying that we don’t want foods that are highly processed, processed by chemicals, preservatives and artificial food coloring, things to make the food look pretty and perfect. Those things aren’t providing healthy, sustainable food for our kids. It all comes down to health.

Q: You mentioned one specific farmer you use. I read about a school district in Florida that actually had the farmers come to the schools for a bidding process. How does D-11 conduct this search?
Hughes: We are doing farm to school with our local state association of Farm to School. We’ve had some great partners, and I think a huge key to success is having good partners not only in the community but also in the producers, the growers and farmers. We have been working with some farmers to develop food safety standards for the farms that we buy from. That collaboration we have with farmers has helped us leaps and bounds to develop systems of procurement and systems of food safety that we can all be comfortable with.

Q: Rick, how long have you worked with the school district?
Hughes: I’ve worked with the school district 11 years, since 1997. I came to D-11 as a foodservice manager. I used to work for Sodexo Marriott. Sodexo and the school district decided that they could do bigger and better without spending half a million dollars annually on a management company. While I’ve worked with D-11 since 1997, it’s only been the last five or six years that I have worked for the school district (in a capacity) where I could make these changes.

Q: Can you tell me your connection with the Galileo School?
Hughes: The Galileo garden project is one of our projects where we are growing our own food basically. Right now there isn’t a lot of sunlight because the sun is so low in the sky, but we are putting an emphasis on fresh herbs. We are able to utilize those in our meal program.

During the early fall, when it is still good growing season, we were growing quite a bit of lettuce and getting high yield.

Q: Do you think it is a good thing to get children used to those flavors at a young age?
Hughes: We think that is a huge key. Our food has so much flavor now, it’s wonderful. It is going to take that flavor profile to get kids used to it and move them from a diet that’s mostly salt, sugar and fat in the processed foods to real foods that are good for them and really taste good. It’s awesome.

Q: What changes have you actually seen in the kids as far as grades, classroom behavior, etc.?
Hughes: It’s a little bit anecdotal, but we have had a lot of feedback from teachers and they say that behavior in the classroom is tremendously better and they are able to concentrate more. We have so many initiatives going on in our school system right now it’s hard to look at grades or test scores and know what did it. The feedback that we are getting from parents, principals and teachers is overwhelmingly positive. If we lose 6 percent on the revenue side, we’re OK because ultimately we want to serve kids good food, we want to serve kids food that is going to help them, and if I’m able to break even in our food service program, which is the ultimate goal, we’ve achieved all of our goals.

Source: The Shelby Report

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