Good nutrition results in higher test scores, research shows, and that fact isn’t lost on school food-service professionals. But sometimes it takes a renegade to make that point — not only to kids, but also to the schools where they eat.

Colorado has several of those. Chef Ann Cooper, aka “Renegade Lunch Lady,” is food services director for the Boulder Valley School District and co-author of “Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children.” With more than 40 years’ experience as a chef, including 17 years in school food programs, Cooper has worked to transform cafeterias into culinary classrooms.

Through her Chef Ann Foundation, she launched the School Food Institute last year. It offers online video courses that teach school food-service professionals and childhood nutrition advocates how to transition to a scratch-cooking program — and away from traditional, heavily processed “heat-and-serve” lunch trays, which still are used in most schools.

Fresh, local food is a priority for Cooper. She works with local farmers to source ingredients for the 13,000 meals created each day at the district’s 30 schools.

She is a leader in the challenge to encourage better food choices by students. At chefannfoundation.org, a wealth of information, including step-by-step guides and recipes, can help schools improve their food programs.

Closer to home, a couple of renegades have left their healthy food mark at schools in Colorado Springs. Larry Stebbins, a former principal at District 11’s Carver Elementary, was instrumental in getting a salad bar with fresh veggies set up.

“In the late 1990s, I asked the district’s contracted food service about getting fresh, cut-up vegetables, including broccoli, celery and cherry tomatoes, for a salad bar and fresh fruit like apples and grapes,” he said. “They said they’d give it a try. It was a struggle to get the children to eat them. During lunch, I would be the ‘cheerleader’ to champion the new menu. It appeared hard to compete with chicken nuggets, pizza, hamburgers and fries.”

After he retired, Stebbins, also a master gardener, helped schools build vegetable gardens.

“There was never any problem getting the children to eat what they planted,” he said. “So I have an idea. What if we allowed the students (of all ages) to be more involved with the choices on the school menu?”

Fast-forward to 2012, when The Garden Club was introduced as an after-school program for second- through fifth-graders at Stetson Hills Elementary in District 49. Physical education teacher Matthew Monfre manages the club. Members get raised garden boxes, 4 feet by 4 feet, to grow seeds they select. They get to keep the produce to share with their families. Produce grown in raised beds of 4 by 8 feet goes to the school cafeteria and a local food bank.

“Last year, we donated over 200 pounds of produce to the food bank,” Monfre said. “There has been an increase in the healthy food eaten by Garden Club family members and students. Most students plant food they want to take home and eat.”

In 2014, District 11 hired Nathan Dirnberger as executive chef overseeing its vast Good Food Project. The program aims to eliminate highly processed foods and make food from scratch rather than opening a box or a can. The program pushes for food that comes from a farm, instead of a factory.

The district’s Galileo School of Math and Science has a geodesic dome greenhouse, 42 feet in diameter, where lettuce, herbs, tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, peppers, spinach and squash is grown for the school salad bar and lunch menu. The district also has gardening classes and raised veggie gardens to support class lessons and contribute to its school cafeterias.

Another renegade is Kate Fowler, director of school food and nutrition at Academy School District 20. Her successful idea for getting kids on board with healthier food choices: Let them create recipes to enter in a cooking contest.

She orchestrated the annual Sodexo Future Chef’s Challenge. Kids dream up healthy recipes to cook for a chance to compete in a national cook-off. The students practice their recipes at home — making it a win-win for parents — until the day of the cook-off, when they whip, stir, chop and sauté their creations for a group of judges.

These school lunch renegades should be wearing hero capes for their influence on showing how a few small changes in procuring and preparing food can be fun, nutritious and sustainable — and how kids want to eat the food they grow and cook.

Contact the writer: 636-0271.

RECIPES

Fresh Veggie Pizza

Yield: 8 slices 1 package low-fat crescent rolls 4 ounces nonfat cream cheese 1⁄4 cup nonfat mayonnaise 1⁄2 cup nonfat sour cream 1⁄2 teaspoon dried basil (or thyme) 1⁄2 cup broccoli, chopped 1⁄2 cup cauliflower, chopped 1⁄4 cup green pepper, finely chopped 1⁄2 cup carrot, finely chopped 1⁄3 cup low-fat shredded cheddar cheese Procedure: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Unroll the crescent rolls and place them on a baking sheet to bake. Bake for 10 minutes. Mix together the cream cheese, mayonnaise, sour cream and basil until smooth. Spread mixture on the cooled crescent rolls. Sprinkle the chopped vegetables and shredded cheddar cheese on top of the cream cheese mixture. Serve immediately. Refrigerate leftovers within 2 hours. Source: foodhero.org

Chicken Veggie Skewers

Yield: 4 servings 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning Kosher salt 2 grinds freshly ground black pepper 1/2 yellow bell pepper, chopped into bite-sized pieces 1/2 red bell pepper, chopped into bite-sized pieces 1/2 green bell pepper, chopped into bite-sized pieces 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into bite-sized pieces Bamboo skewers Procedure: In a medium bowl, whisk together olive oil, garlic powder, and Italian seasoning and season with a pinch of salt and pepper. Add bell peppers and chicken and, using tongs, toss until coated. Thread chicken and bell peppers onto skewers. Heat a large grill pan over medium heat. Add skewers to grill pan and cook until chicken is cooked through and peppers are tender, 4 minutes per side. Remove from pan and serve. Source: delish.com

contact the writer: 636-0271.

Food editor

Food writer for features life section and columnist for Go! Entertainment - Table Talk column

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