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.

after parkland

‘We’re not kidding about this,’ says one teen leader of Memphis march on gun violence

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students in Indianapolis participate in the National School Walkout on March 14. This Saturday, students in the Memphis area will join a related March for Our Lives.

Memphis students were on spring break when this month’s national school walkout against gun violence happened, but 13-year-old Simran Bains is not going to miss her chance to publicly speak her mind.

PHOTO: Simran Bains
Eighth-grader Simran Bains is a student leader at Schilling Farms Middle School in Collierville.

An eighth-grader at Schilling Farms Middle School in Collierville, which is on the outskirts of Memphis, Simran is one of more than a dozen teenagers planning this Saturday’s March for Our Lives in Memphis.

She believes the student drive to protest gun violence following last month’s shooting of 17 people in Parkland, Florida, will not end anytime soon. Saturday’s march is part of a national movement organized by Parkland students to keep the conversation going about gun violence.

“I think this moment is different,” Simran said. “For every school shooting I can remember, it’s the same cycle. People are sad and shocked, but nothing ever changes.”

Students and other supporters will walk to the National Civil Rights Museum from Clayborn Temple, the historic assembling area for civil rights marches of the 1960s.

We spoke with Simran about what this march means to her and what she hopes Memphis learns from it. (This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.)

Why are you participating in Saturday’s march?

For me, I’ve always been a little louder than my peers. I’ve always been one to go on a tangent or two. When I heard about the march from a friend, it really stood out to me because it’s being organized by people my age. I have never seen people this young doing stuff like this. It was inspiring. There’s this perception in society that there’s a gun problem in America and that’s how the world will always be. But here, I’m seeing young people, who are the future of America, changing the world, and I wanted to be a part of that.

What message do you hope to send?

I hope people hear that even though we’re young, we’re not kidding about this, and we won’t back down. I want people in Shelby County to care more about this issue and listen to us. I hope people recognize that even if they have a right to protection, no one should have to fear for their life while receiving a public education. This is a serious issue. If we don’t do something, it only gets worse from here.

But I also hope we can broaden the conversation beyond school shootings. We have one of the highest gun homicide rates in the world, one of the highest suicide-by-gun rates in the world. We’re talking about people killing themselves, not just people killing people. Suicide and homicide aren’t often brought into this conversation. I hope that changes in Memphis.

I also want the march to remind us that we can’t become desensitized to gun violence. Whenever we read that someone was shot, we don’t always think how somebody just lost one of their own. That person will have to go home to empty bedrooms.

What specifically would you like to see happen in Tennessee?

I’m personally not one to advocate for the total removal of guns. I think that’s sometimes an assumption of people who are against protests like March for Our Lives. They assume we want to take all guns away. That’s not necessarily true. But I want a written exam to purchase a gun, like in Japan. I also want a longer wait time when you purchase a gun. I don’t think you should be able to walk into a gun shop and walk out the same day with a weapon. School shootings, or gun violence in general, can often be a spur-of-the-moment decision. What if the person had to wait a few days, weeks or months before they actually got that gun? Would they still feel the same way they did when they first went to buy the gun?

Have you or your family or your friends ever been personally touched by gun violence?

My family has never been a gun family. My parents are immigrants from India, and it’s just never been a thing for us. Going to school where I do, there’s a lot of political viewpoints. Some people are really pro owning guns, some are really against. And it’s an interesting place to talk about this. But also, I’ve gotten to know people from different backgrounds. I know people in Memphis and areas surrounding it who have lost someone to guns. I’ve known people who have lost loved ones to guns in homicides or gang violence.

Starting young

These 11-year-old Brooklyn students are asking New York City to do something about segregated schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Matilda and Eliza Seki, left, and their friends Noa and Benji Weiss, right, collected signatures at a district 15 meeting to discuss middle school integration efforts.

While they learned about the history of segregation, a group of Brooklyn 11-year-olds took a good look around their classrooms and realized their schools weren’t so different from the photos in their textbooks.

So Matilda and Eliza Seki paired up with their friends Noa and Benji Weiss — two sets of twins — and decided to do something about it. They launched a petition on calling on the city to integrate its schools.

“We learned about separate and equal in the civil rights movement, and that it was not equal,” Eliza said, referring to the “separate but equal” legal doctrine once used to justify segregation. “And since there are schools with people of only one race, and it’s all separated, it cannot be equal.”

Matilda and Eliza are in the sixth grade at M.S. 839, and Noa and Benji are fifth-graders at P.S. 10. They already have a bit of experience in activism, having joined the Women’s March in D.C., and helping to lead environmental clubs at their school. They hold sophisticated views for kids their age, and are aware of the hurdles ingrained in addressing school segregation.

Describing how housing patterns can tie into school quality, Benji began his thoughts by saying: “Let’s say you’re from a different culture or race and you don’t have as much money as other people do — because we still live in a racist country — and you’re in an area where the housing is cheaper but you don’t have as good schools.”

Across New York City, adults have debated how to spur integration in the country’s largest school system — and one of the most segregated. According to one recent analysis, the city’s most selective high schools enroll 84 percent white and Asian students, even though those groups make up only 30 percent of the city’s student enrollment.

But student-organized groups have also been at the forefront of a grassroots movement for more diverse schools. The work of budding advocates Matilda, Eliza, Noa and Benji caught the attention of some those groups, and they’ve now joined the ranks of Teens Take Charge and IntegrateNYC as some of the youngest members. The changes they’d like to see go beyond admissions policies, but also include a push for additional resources for underserved schools, hiring more teachers of color and curricula that reflects all students and cultures.

“We decided it was an important issue and we wanted to help fix it,” Noa said.

Matilda added: “Our schools should look like our city.”

Their schools are in District 15, where 81 percent of white students are concentrated in just three of the district’s most selective middle schools, according to an analysis by parents. The city has launched a series of public workshops to craft a new admissions model to integrate middle schools there, but these kids already have their own ideas for how to do that.

Benji, who is heading to middle school next year, said it would be “pretty good” if schools stopped picking students based on criteria such as class grades and attendance. Such “screening” contributes to segregation because of a number of factors — from which elementary schools students attend, to their parents’ ability to navigate the complicated admissions process.  

“It’s… important to learn about different peoples’ backgrounds, and religions, and cultures,” he said. “And also to make sure that all kids, no matter their race, religion or where they live can get the same, good education.”