The Other 60 Percent

Culinary students revamp lunchrooms, enliven classes

Culinary students from Johnson & Wales University are sharing their expertise with Denver Public Schools to enliven school cafeteria food, making it both more appealing and more nutritious.

Nicole Impero’s task was daunting: Come up with a recipe for a Denver Public Schools lunchroom menu using Colorado-grown grass-fed beef that kitchen staff could easily make, at least 70 percent of kids would willingly eat, and meets appropriate nutritional standards.

Oh, and costs no more than $1.10 per child, including the milk.

Impero, who will graduate later this month with a degree in culinary nutrition from Johnson & Wales University in Denver, drew on a recipe her mom made for her as a child and she loved it: taco pizza.

“It’s got two of the favorite items that kids love – tacos and pizza,” said Impero, 22. “It’s got locally-grown ground beef, beans, low-fat cheese, lettuce and tomatoes on a whole grain crust.”

Her first attempt was tasty, but 20 cents over budget. Repeated juggling of the ingredients brought the costs down to just 9 cents over budget, and Impero is optimistic she can reduce that still further. “When I first made it, 50 servings required 6 pounds of beef and 6 pounds of cheese and 50 ounces of beans. I played around, reduced it to 4 pounds of beef and 4 pounds of cheese, which put me at 3.5 ounces of protein per child. The requirement is at least 2 ounces, so I still have some room to reduce. But will the pizza look empty? I can always put more vegetables or salsa on there, so I think it will work. And the kids will either love it or say ‘Ewwwwwww! Tacos on a pizza, that’s gross!’”

Johnson & Wales culinary nutrition student Jordan Dennis leads a nutrition class at Denver's KIPP Collegiate High School.

Impero is one of four Johnson & Wales interns working with DPS this spring to help the district revise its menu options for the coming school year to reflect a greater emphasis on scratch cooking and on local produce – including Colorado beef.  Four other Johnson & Wales students are working in DPS schools to launch a pilot program sponsored by Get Smart Schools to develop a customized curriculum to teach students about nutrition and healthy food choices.

DPS officials are finding that it’s not a bad thing to have a well-known culinary arts school in their community.

“We’ve had a very good relationship with Johnson & Wales,” said Leo Lesh, executive director of food and nutrition services for DPS. “They’ve been providing us with interns and chefs for several years now, and they do a lot of work for us.”

“Having these students as support has been tremendous,” said Cathy Schmelter, director of health resources for Get Smart Schools, a local non-profit organization working to create healthier and more effective schools. “They’re very well-trained. I can get a big project done with these students.”

Jorge de la Torre, dean of culinary education at Johnson & Wales, believes there are lots of things his students can teach local schools about getting tastier and more nutritious food on their menus, and doing so inexpensively.

“Last year, we developed a black bean brownie for DPS and the students loved it,” de la Torre said. “And all the recipes went through a kid panel. They had to pass with a 70 percent ‘desire rate.’ Because if it doesn’t taste right, adults might eat it because it’s good for them, but not kids.”

So when Lesh became determined to get grass-fed beef into the DPS menus, he turned to the experts at Johnson & Wales to figure out how.

“This is something we believe in,” Lesh said.  “Grass-fed beef is better for us, and better for the environment. But if it’s not accepted by the students, then we’ve got a problem. That’s (the J&W interns’) charge: to get these products in.”

Dealing with fresh cuts of raw meat is a challenge for many schools, however. For years now, most entrees have come to DPS cafeterias pre-processed. Cafeteria workers just had to heat them up and serve them.

The schools reliance on processed food came as an eye-opener to Impero. “The kitchen ladies do a great job with what they do, and it’s hard, given the time constraints they have to work with,” she said. “But everything comes out of a box! You don’t know what the kids are eating. When I have kids, I don’t want them to eat like that.”

Dealing with raw meat raises safety issues. Kitchen workers will have to learn new procedures for handling fresh meat. They’ll need different knives, different kinds of equipment. And they’ll have to learn how to prepare foods from scratch.

Come summer, that’s just what some of them will learn. The district will host four-to five-week classes in scratch cooking for 100 to 125 of its 550 food service employees, Lesh said.

“When we start our scratch foods program in 25 to 30 schools this fall, we’ll have to find people who want to do it,” Lesh said. “We have some people who used to do that in years gone by, so they’re excited to be doing it again. But it’s a largely a lost art. We’re the microwave generation.”

The employees who participate in this “Lunchroom U” will be trained in ordering fresh food, inventory control, safety procedures, presentation and garnishes. “Then they’ll get into the kitchens and make everything on the menu, first making it under ideal conditions, then under extreme conditions, like when two people call in sick,” Lesh said. “It’s not about just making it and having it taste good, but how to present it, how to jazz it up, do the color combinations well. That’s where our local chefs will really help us out.”

In addition to the scratch cooking, DPS is looking at several other initiatives to improve the quality of the food its students get. The district has been promoting “superfoods,” those nutrition-dense products such as blueberries, pumpkin and cabbage that provide the greatest bang for the buck. J&W students devised a number of recipes using those ingredients.

“We’re also trying to put together parent/kid cooking classes,” Lesh said, “so we can reinforce at home what they do at school. We want them to purchase at home the kinds of things we’re doing for them at lunch. They may eat at school five days a week, but for 192 days a year they’re on their own. We want to circle the wagons, give that education to the parents.”

Meanwhile, at seven high-poverty Denver-area schools, J&W interns are devising creative ways to teach students about nutrition, through a pilot project sponsored by Get Smart Schools.

“We’re meeting every week to develop general concepts, then meeting with schools to customize our programs to their needs,” said Schmelter said. Strategies include cooking demonstrations, creating school gardens, or having students develop their own recipes. William Smith High School is doing a full-year obesity prevention campaign, and is incorporating cooking into math classes. Park Hill School is getting its own chicken coop. AXL Academy is offering after-school nutrition classes for students and their parents.

At KIPP Denver Collegiate High School, physical education teacher Curt Slaughter has set aside the last 20 minutes of his 80-minute gym classes this spring to give J&W senior Jordan Dennis a chance to provide the teenagers with some in-depth nutrition counseling.

“I’m trying to get them to develop good habits, to keep a log of what they eat, how much they exercise. They’re always tracking their health,” said Slaughter. “Now Jordan is taking the core knowledge that I’ve given them and personalizing it.”

Dennis has her students developing a seven-day menu that fits their individual needs. “Fifty percent of their carbs need to come from whole grains, and they have to have five servings of fruit and vegetables every day,” she said. “I’m helping them not to just say ‘I’m hungry! What can I eat right now?’ but to plan.”

She says she’s been pleasantly surprised at how inventive their menus have been. “I’m seeing a lot of lentils,” she said. “And I think they’re enjoying it.”

“It’s cool to see them questioning what they’re eating,” Slaughter said. “They won’t go to McDonald’s every day now. And this is particularly important for the girls: we’re teaching them the difference between being skinny and being healthy. They’ve really been taking to it. I don’t want them to wait until their body starts breaking down before they start taking care of themselves. I tell them, ‘When you go to college, no one is going to force you to work out or to eat right.’ So don’t just stay with pizza and nachos because that’s what you’ve been eating your whole life.”

For more information

Click here to see some award-winning, kid-pleasing recipes at Fresh for Kids.

Watch a video of Jordan Dennis making nutrition class fun for KIPP Denver Collegiate High School students.

task force

Jeffco takes collaborative approach as it considers later school start times

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

The Jeffco school district is weighing pushing back start times at its middle and high schools, and the community task force set up to offer recommendations is asking for public input.

Nearby school districts, such as those in Cherry Creek and Greeley, have rolled out later start times, and Jeffco — the second largest school district in Colorado — in December announced its decision to study the issue.

Thompson and Brighton’s 27J school districts are pushing back start times at their secondary schools this fall.

The 50-person Jeffco task force has until January to present their recommendations to the district.

Supporters of the idea to start the school day later cite research showing that teenagers benefit from sleeping in and often do better in school as a result.

Jeffco is considering changing start times after parents and community members began pressing superintendent Jason Glass to look at the issue. Middle and high schools in the Jeffco district currently start at around 7:30 a.m.

The task force is inviting community members to offer their feedback this summer on the group’s website, its Facebook page, or the district’s form, and to come to its meetings in the fall.

Katie Winner, a Jeffco parent of two and one of three chairs of the start times task force, said she’s excited about how collaborative the work is this year.

“It’s a little shocking,” Winner said. “It’s really hard to convey to people that Jeffco schools wants your feedback. But I can say [definitively], I don’t believe this is a waste of time.”

The task force is currently split into three committees focusing on reviewing research on school start times, considering outcomes in other districts that have changed start times, and gathering community input. The group as a whole will also consider how schedule changes could affect transportation, sports and other after school activities, student employment, and district budgets.

Members of the task force are not appointed by the district, as has been typical in district decision-making in years past. Instead, as a way to try to generate the most community engagement, everyone who expressed interest was accepted into the group. Meetings are open to the public, and people can still join the task force.

“These groups are short-term work groups, not school board advisory committees. They are targeting some current issues that our families are interested in,” said Diana Wilson, the district’s chief communications officer. “Since the topics likely have a broad range of perspectives, gathering people that (hopefully) represent those perspectives to look at options seems like a good way to find some solutions or ideas for positive/constructive changes.”

How such a large group will reach a consensus remains to be seen. Winner knows the prospect could appear daunting, but “it’s actually a challenge to the group to say: be inclusive.”

For now the group is seeking recommendations that won’t require the district to spend more money. But Winner said the group will keep a close eye on potential tax measures that could give the district new funds after November. If some measure were to pass, it could give the group more flexibility in its recommendations.

Battle of the Bands

How one group unites, provides opportunities for Memphis-area musicians

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Memphis Mass Band members prepare for Saturday's Independence Showdown Battle of the Bands in Jackson, Mississippi.

A drumline’s cadence filled the corners of Fairley High School’s band room, where 260 band members from across Memphis wrapped up their final practice of the week.

“M-M-B!” the group shouted before lifting their instruments to attention. James Taylor, one of the program’s five directors, signaled one last stand tune before he made his closing remarks.

“It behooves you to be on that bus at that time,” Taylor said to the room of Memphis Mass Band members Thursday night, reminding them to follow his itinerary. Saturday would be a be a big day after all.

That’s when about 260 Memphis Mass Band members will make their way to Jackson, Mississippi, for the event of the season: the Independence Showdown Battle of the Bands. They’ll join mass bands from New Orleans, Detroit, Georgia, Mississippi, and North Carolina to showcase musical performances.

“This is like the Honda of mass bands,” said baritone section leader Marico Ray, referring to the Honda Battle of the Bands, the ultimate competition between bands from historically black colleges and universities

Mass bands are designed to connect young band members to older musicians, many of whom are alumni of college bands and can help them through auditions and scholarship applications.

Created in 2011, Memphis Mass Band is a co-ed organization that’s geared toward unifying middle school, high school, college, and alumni bands across the city. The local group is a product of a merger of a former alumni and all-star band, each then about a decade old.

Ray, who joined what was called the Memphis All Star band in 2001, said the group challenged him in a way that his high school band could not.

“I was taught in high school that band members should be the smartest people, because you have to take in and do so much all at once,” he said, noting that band members have to play, count, read, and keep a tempo at the same time.

But the outside program would put that to the test. Ray laughed as he remembered his first day of practice with other all-star members.

“I was frightened,” he said. “I knew I was good, but I wanted to be how good everybody else was.”

Ray, now 30, credits the group for his mastery of the baritone, for his college degree, and for introducing him to his wife Kamisha. By the time he graduated from Hillcrest High School in 2006 and joined the local alumni band, he was already well-connected with band directors from surrounding colleges, like Jackson State University, where he took courses in music education. After he married Kamisha, an all-star alumna and fellow baritone player, they both came back to Memphis to join the newly formed Memphis Mass Band.

“This music is very important, but what you do after this is what’s gonna make you better in life,” he said. “The goal is to make everyone as good as possible, and if you’re competing with the next person all the time, you’ll never stop trying to get better.”

In a school district that has seen many school closures and mergers in recent years, Ray said a program like MMB is needed for students who’ve had to bounce between school bands. The band is open-admission, meaning it will train anyone willing to put in the work, without requiring an audition.

“[Relocation] actually hurts a lot of our students and children because that takes their mentality away from anything that they wanted to do, versus them being able to continue going and striving,” Ray said. “Some of them lose opportunities and scholarships, college life and careers, because of a change in atmospheres.”

With its unique mix of members, though, school rivalries are common, and MMB occasionally deals with cross-system spars. But Saturday, the members will put all of that aside.

“What school you went to really doesn’t matter,” Ray said. “Everybody out here is going to wear the same uniform.”

Asia Wilson, an upcoming sophomore at the University of Memphis, heard about the group from a friend. Wilson used to play trumpet in the Overton High School band, but she said coming to MMB this year has introduced her to a different style.

Jorge Pena, a sophomore at Central High School, heard about the group on YouTube. It’s also his first year in the mass band, and the tuba player is now gearing up to play alongside members of different ages, like Wilson.

They’re both ready to show what they’ve learned at the big battle.

“It’s gonna be lit,” Wilson said, smiling.

Need weekend plans? Tickets are still selling for Saturday’s 5 p.m. showcase. To purchase, click here.