A school cafeteria might be the last place someone would look to recruit an activist.
But in the Pikes Peak region, two school food service directors are taking the lead in getting more wholesome and fresh foods in the lunch lines.
Breaded “chicken products” are making way for natural, roasted chicken. Packaged desserts loaded with sugar and high fructose corn syrup are out, as are processed foods high in food dyes and preservatives. Fresh fruits and vegetables appear daily.
And lunchroom staffers are learning – or relearning – to cook.
The efforts by Rick Hughes in Colorado Springs School District 11 and Monica Deines-Henderson in Falcon School District 49 are getting some national attention.
U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Deputy Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Janey Thornton will be a guest at a lunch roundtable for area food service directors on Wednesday hosted by Hughes. It will feature, of course, locally grown fresh greens.
Hughes said they’ll talk about the D-11 Good Food Project and the Pikes Peak Farm to School committee that’s working to partner regional food producers with schools to ensure students are getting the healthiest foods. They’ll also plead their case for an increase in the federal money for school lunches to offset the higher price tag on more natural foods.
What children eat has become a national issue as rates of childhood obesity and diabetes skyrocket, and some studies have linked dyes and other food additives in highly processed food to such problems as hyperactivity.
“We are trying to communicate why people need to care about where their food comes from, about why kids need to eat good food,” said Hughes, who sends home with students a monthly nutrition newsletter and posts other information on the D-11 Good Food Project website.
Others have noticed, too.
Hughes recently got a couple of phone calls from the Corn Refiners Association. They wanted Hughes to be sure and call if he had any questions about corn and corn products.
“It was a little unnerving,” Hughes said of the calls from the industry giant. “I’m careful about what I say about food products. I use research to support the changes I make.”
Hughes has worked in school food service for 19 years and helped move D-11’s program from Sodexho Inc. back in-house five years ago. He immediately started to reduce the amount of highly processed food on the menu.
But after watching the documentary "Food, Inc." about a year ago and delving into research on food production, Hughes rallied his staff and began to push for bigger changes.
“I just became alarmed at what I was seeing and hearing,” he said.
Deines-Henderson, who had worked in school lunch programs for 12 years and took charge of D-49’s food service program three years ago, also was trying make changes.
“The first thing I did was sell off all the French fryers,” she said, noting that it created a bit of a stir.
She said she grew up doing 4-H and serving natural and fresh food has always been a passion.
“I like to provide the students of this district the same opportunity to experience food that hasn’t been changed so much from its natural state,” she said. “I want them to be exposed to the good flavors food has when it’s fresher and closer to nature.”
Both districts are making more menu items from scratch, and said their lunchroom workers are eagerly taking on the chore of doing more actual cooking and less opening boxes and heating up “food products.”
“I’m really blessed to have a staff with longevity and a lot of these ladies know how to cook,” Deines-Henderson said.
Hughes said increased cooking has presented some challenges but he has asked local chefs for help in teaching staff to “prepare great food.”
This summer D-11 will seek bids from companies to provide beef for the lunch program. The request will be for grass-fed beef from cattle that have not been given hormones or antibiotics, Hughes said.
“I think we can positively impact student achievement if kids are eating good food,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do. We are generating dialog and discussion about our food system, and getting great support from local farmers.
“We can have control of where we get our food. We need to raise our voices and be heard because we’re the consumers. We’re the ones paying for the food.”
"Fresh," the movie
The Pikes Peak Farm to School Committee and Colorado Springs School District 11 will host a free showing of "Fresh" at 7 p.m. tonight in the Palmer High School auditorium, 301 N. Nevada Ave. The film by Ana Sofia Joanes looks at new approaches to bringing food to the table. A discussion will follow.
Call the writer at 636-0251.