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The new school lunch: D-11 students eat meals made by staff from natural, local foods

August 15, 2011
photo - School District 11 executive chef Brian Axworthy holds a Teriyaki Turkey Wrap and fresh ingredients in the hallway of Wasson High School. Photo by MARK REIS, THE GAZETTE
School District 11 executive chef Brian Axworthy holds a Teriyaki Turkey Wrap and fresh ingredients in the hallway of Wasson High School. Photo by MARK REIS, THE GAZETTE 

It’s a whole new day for students in the lunch lines at District 11 schools.

No more white-flour pizza slices. No more fried chicken nuggets. No more chocolate milk — at least not for elementary- and middle-schoolers. In their place will be whole-wheat pizza — once a week — and oven-baked chicken. And regular white milk.

This is thanks, in large part, to Rick Hughes, director of food and nutrition services for the district. He came to District 11 in 1997 with Sodexo, a food service-management company that provided the meals at all the district’s schools. He had a watershed experience after seeing the Robert Kenner movie “Food Inc.,” a documentary about food production in the United States that exposes the way livestock are treated before slaughter. It also looks at issues surrounding our health and the profits of corporations (like Sodexo) invested in supplying food.

“I walked out of the movie scratching my head and asking myself, ‘Is the food system really that bad?’” he said.

So, he did some of his own investigating.

“I became sick to my stomach after learning details from experts such as Michael Pollan, Joel Salatin, Eric Schlosser and Ana Sofia Jones, while also talking to other food experts and farmers locally,” he said. “I knew we had to change the way we thought about food — especially the food we serve children. We need to know what is in our food and where it comes from.”

Changes began in baby steps.

“In 2006 we got rid of Sodexo,” he said. “Then we could make better decisions about the best foods for kids. And we could keep track of the money and how it was being spent. We could put money back into food for the kids, the staff and community.”

The district developed a vision and a plan, and the D11 Good Food Project was born. It was a “commitment to remove highly processed foods from our menus,” he said, and took a firm stance in defining “good food.”

For five years, District 11 has sourced natural, grass-fed beef and locally grown fruits and vegetables.

“We use only antibiotic/hormone-free beef and chicken,” he said. “We started a Farm to School group to help us get more locally produced foods into the schools.”

Next, the district hired Brian Axworthy as the executive chef. He would be in charge of developing menus containing that “good food.”

“With a management company, like Sodexo, in schools, the cafeteria personnel basically opened bags of precooked frozen foods and boxes,” Hughes said. “With the help of a chef creating recipes using uncooked, local foods, we needed to embark on a whole new system of food preparation.”

What followed was “culinary boot camps,” five-day, hands-on training for cafeteria-management teams focusing on creating healthful and delicious school meals. They were presented with the help of LiveWell Colorado, a program partially funded by the Colorado Health Foundation and through a federal stimulus grant awarded to the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment.

Remember the days when the school lunch ladies arrived early and started cooking hot rolls, beans and stews? Well, that’s essentially what school lunch team members learned during the boot camps. They got training on topics such as from-scratch cooking techniques, knife skills, culinary math, recipe and menu development and commodities ordering.

One such boot camp took place at Coronado High School in early June. Instead of opening cans of pinto beans, the participants cooked bags of dried beans. Instead of filling compartments on the salad bar with bottles of pre-made salad dressing, they filled them with homemade, lower-fat and lower-sugar dressings. Instead of boxed macaroni and (powdered) cheese, they prepared bags of macaroni and doctored it up with real cheese, carrots and butternut squash.

“The mac and cheese still looks a lot like what the kids are used to seeing from boxed versions,” said Axworthy, “but it has vegetables added.”

One lunch cook said, “We call it stealth veggies.”

Recipes, like the mac and cheese, that Axworthy has developed have added nutrition while cutting a lot of the fat, sodium and sugar found in highly processed foods. And it has saved the school district money.

“We took the front end $267,000 (Sodexo fees) in savings and reinvested that back into employee salaries, better-quality food for students and new equipment for school kitchens,” said Hughes. “The back-end rebates from Sodexo from food and supply manufacturers amounted to approximately $230,000.”

The switch away from Sodexo has paid off with higher school meal counts, too.

“Meal counts in breakfast and lunch programs have significantly increased since 2004-05 school years,” said Hughes. “Lunch has increased by 34 percent and breakfast has increased by 65 percent.”

While many of the changes to the school meal program have been taking place over the course of several years, one of the biggest changes this year for elementary and middle school students will be the absence of chocolate milk.

“The main reason for no longer serving chocolate milk is the amount of added sugar in it and our decision to reduce sugar in meals we serve,” Hughes said.

Visit for details about the district’s rationale for dropping chocolate milk from the lunch service.

Bottom line, however: Eating healthily is linked to learning.

“Food is the cornerstone of performance,” says Nicholas Gledich, District 11 superintendent.

“We firmly believe that good food provides our bodies and brains with the fuel needed for optimal performance.”


Yield: 12 bars

2 cups old-fashioned oats
1/2 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup coconut flakes
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup sunflower kernels (or nut of choice)
1 cup powdered milk
1/2 cup each raisins and dried cranberries
1/4 cup butter
1/3 cup honey
3/4 cup peanut butter
1/2 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup raspberry jam

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Mix dry ingredients (oats through dried fruit) in large bowl and reserve.
3. In small saucepan over medium heat, melt butter; add honey, peanut butter, vanilla extract and jam. Stir until melted and pour mixture into dry ingredients; mix well.
4. Press mixture into 9-by9-inch square cake pan or something of similar size, pressing down firmly and evenly. Bake 7-10 minutes to form a soft granola bar consistency, 10-15 minutes to form a hard granola bar consistency. Remove power bars from oven and cool.
5. Once cooled, cut bars into 12 equal (4-by-3-inch) pieces and cover pan until needed.

Brian Axworthy, executive chef for School District 11 in Colorado Springs



Yield: 6 servings

6 ounces elbow macaroni
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup 1 percent milk
2 tablespoons carrot purée
1/4 cup butternut squash purée
1/8 teaspoon granulated garlic
1/4 teaspoon granulated onion
Pinch salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground mustard
Dash turmeric, for color (optional)
Dash each ground cloves and ground nutmeg (optional)
2 ounce shredded cheddar cheese, divided
1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon cream cheese
3 tablespoons panko bread crumbs

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. In saucepan over high heat, bring 1 quart water to boiling. Add macaroni and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente. Strain and rinse under cold water to stop cooking process.
3. To small saucepan over medium heat, add canola oil and flour; mix into a paste. Add milk, carrot and squash purées and seasonings; bring to boiling. Remove sauce from heat and 1 ounce cheddar cheese, Parmesan cheese and cream cheese. Stir sauce until cheeses have melted. Taste and adjust any seasonings as necessary.
4. Mix sauce with cold macaroni and place mixture in small, oven-proof casserole dish. Top with remaining cheddar cheese and bread crumbs. Bake 15-20 minutes, or until crust is lightly browned.

Brian Axworthy, executive chef for School District 11 in Colorado Springs

Call Farney at 636-0271. Hear her “KVOR Table Talk” radio show noon to 1 p.m. Saturdays on 740 AM. Friend her on Facebook

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