The Other 60 Percent

“Lunch ladies” fight back

The cover from one in the "Lunch Lady" graphic novel series by Jarrett Krocoszka says it all. Lunch ladies - and kitchen managers and school food service and nutrition directors - are fighting back against a negative public perception.

Montana dietitian Dayle Hayes thinks school lunchrooms are getting a bad rap – blamed for serving rotten food, creating the childhood obesity epidemic and, ultimately, putting our nation’s very future at risk.

School “lunch ladies” can be forgiven, she said, if they’re starting to take it personally.

“I know how hard you work, from early morning to late in the afternoon to feed Colorado kids,” Hayes told a gathering of 270 of those lunch ladies – and a smattering of “lunch gentlemen” – meeting Saturday in Aurora for the Colorado School Nutrition Association fall conference. “Without the food you make, many of those children simply could not learn.”

Hayes drew applause when she blasted celebrity chef Jamie Oliver – who famously tangled with “Lunch Lady Alice” while attempting to remake the Huntington, W.V. schools’ menu this year for his Food Revolution reality TV series.

Oliver was appalled to find one school – in the city deemed America’s least fit – serving pizza and chocolate milk for breakfast, and chicken nuggets and reconstituted mashed potato “pearls” for lunch. But locals didn’t quickly take to the British chef foisting his ideas onto their kids’ lunch trays.

“It’s really all about Jamie Oliver and Jamie Oliver’s celebrity than about making fundamental changes,” Hayes said.

British TV chef Jamie Oliver has drawn praise and criticism for his efforts to change the menu in some U.S. schools.

“He chose to focus just on the negative things instead of including all the good things that go on there too.” More wild applause. Hayes clearly struck a chord with this group of school nutrition directors, kitchen managers and cooks.

Hayes, a nutrition coach, writes the “Eat Well at School” blog, runs the Nutrition for the Future website and has a Facebook page “School Meals that Rock.” She travels the country talking to dietitians, food service directors and other involved in feeding kids at home and school.

She’s convinced that the current childhood obesity debate is missing the mark.

“Parents point fingers at the schools, and the schools point fingers at the parents, and we all love to point fingers at McDonald’s,” she said. “Sometimes we get so caught up in finger-pointing that we forget to talk about just what our children are eating.”

She worries that far too many children are overfed but undernourished. She points out that 90 percent of teen-age girls and 70 percent of teen-age boys fail to get enough calcium.

Children and teens’ intake of vitamins, folic acid, magnesium, phosphorus, iron and zinc are all well below recommended levels, and the least nourished group in the country is teen-age girls, she said. She lays much of the blame on the nation’s obsession with thinness.

Montana dietitian Dayle Hayes thinks the blame for childhood obesity has been misplaced.

“You see these teen-age girls go through the lunch lines, and they won’t take the meat, they only want a salad or a diet soda,” she said.

She criticized school districts that have banned chocolate-flavored milk, especially now that milk providers are offering low-fat flavored substitutes.

This has been a major controversy in Colorado school nutrition circles, as milk consumption typically plummets once chocolate milk is no longer an option.

“Some people are going off the deep end,” Hayes said, again to much applause. “I personally do not want to live in a world without chocolate. Along with that little extra sugar in chocolate milk comes a lot of nutrients. And now that we have chocolate milk formulations that are so low-fat, we should be considering them.”

Hayes also dished up some disparagement for those who insist schools ought not be in the food service business at all, and that sack lunches from home are a better alternative. In fact, she said, studies show that school lunches contain three times more dairy, twice as much fruit and seven times the vegetables as the typical sack lunch from home.

“School meals are the one place that must meet strict guidelines for quality and nutritional value in the food served,” she said. “We are not the problem. We are in the forefront of the solution.”

Hayes isn’t the only one feeling unfairly put upon these days. Jody Houston, Director of Food Services for the Corpus Christie, Texas, school district and another speaker at the conference, urged school food service employees to be savvy marketers. She was promoting “Tray Talk,” a new public relations campaign put together by the School Nutrition Association to emphasize the benefits of school meals and showcase success stories from school districts nationwide.

“What’s the story we want to tell?” Houston asked. “We need to show that school meals are healthy meals.”

A recent School Nutrition Association survey of its members found widespread changes in the offing in school lunchrooms. Among the findings:

  • More than nine out of 10 school districts are increasing their offerings of whole grain products and fresh produce.
  • Nearly 70 percent of districts are reducing or eliminating sodium in foods.
  • About two-thirds of districts are reducing or limiting added sugar.
  • More than half of districts are increasing vegetarian options.
  • More than two-thirds of districts with vending services are increasing the availability of healthier beverages in the vending machines.

Houston sees marketing devices such as Tray Talk as a needed counterbalance to websites such as “Fed Up With Lunch: The School Lunch Project,” in which an anonymous Midwestern adult female blogger chronicles her experiences eating school lunches every day for a year, along with some distinctly unappetizing photos.

“It’s quite negative,” Houston said.

Anecdotally, more school districts also appear to be launching farm-to-school programs to provide more locally-grown foods in school lunchrooms.

Jill Kidd, director of food services for the Pueblo city school district, said she most appreciated the chance simply to network with other food service directors and kitchen managers.

“It’s good just to sit with other people for awhile and hear about what they’re doing,” she said.

Rebecca Jones can be reached at

crisis mode

Adams 14 proposing expanding mindfulness and other programs for student well-being

First grade students practice reading in Spanish in their biliteracy classroom at Dupont Elementary School in Adams 14. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

The Adams 14 school district is proposing an expansion next year of mental health staffing and two programs, including mindfulness, meant to help students get out of “crisis mode.”

After significant pushback in the current year on cuts that were meant to have schools sharing mental health professionals, every school will have their own next year.

Kim Cini, the district’s assistant director of student services believes, however, that the work of helping students with mental health problems, can’t be only the responsibility of a particular staff member in a school.

“You are never going to have enough mental health workers, ever. You just aren’t,” Cini said. “We are at a time and place in education, in the nation, that it’s time for all of us to step up and get involved. You need your classroom teachers, your parents, volunteers, front office staff, everybody.”

That belief is behind Cini’s push to introduce mindfulness programming in the district’s middle schools. That programming is meant to teach students to also take charge of their own mental well-being and to teach them ways to cope with stress.

In elementary school, Cini helped introduce a curriculum called Random Acts of Kindness to help younger children learn social and emotional skills including coping with trauma, a common challenge for students in the district where more than 86 percent qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a measure of poverty.

Three elementary school principals — from Dupont, Alsup and Kemp — tried out the Random Acts of Kindness this year, and Cini said they’ve seen results. Now, she is planning to expand the program to more schools next school year.

Pat Almeida, principal of Dupont Elementary, one of the three schools using the Random Acts of Kindness curriculum this year, said students get 30 minutes daily to learn coping skills, talk about current events on their mind, and plan activities meant to show compassion for one another.

“My staff is so much more focused on that time as being part of our wraparound services for all kids,” Almeida said. “It’s just part of what we do.”

Almeida said for most students the program has big benefits, but said for some students, it’s not enough help. That means often teachers are able to identify those students who need extra help more quickly and to provide them the right resources.

Long term, Cini said she will be looking at surveys in those schools working on mindfulness or Random Acts of Kindness to see if students report an increase in feeling safe, calm, or in sleeping better.

“We need to get them to go to sleep and stop that hypervigilance and hyperarousal,” Cini said. “They’re just hyperaroused at every little thing. I mean every time Trump comes on with something about DACA, we’re off to the races over here. It’s just crazy.”

Principal Almeida said the work has also made staff reflect more about the work as well.

“As adults we think we understand compassion and empathy,” Almeida said. “But to actually think about it and teach it is different.”

Cini said staff across the district are, like students, also in crisis, and often making decisions based on urgency.

“When you’re operating in crisis mode, you are hypervigilant and you start responding and your decisions become shaped around that,” Cini said. “You see a couple of kids wear a gang-related color and as a leader you make a decision to ban the color red based on the actions of a couple of kids. That’s a pretty big thing to do. We have got to stop making decisions like that.”

Police in schools

The Denver school district is exploring the idea of creating its own police officers

PHOTO: Photo by Katie Wood/The Denver Post via Getty Images

School safety patrol officers in the Denver district would get the authority to arrest students and write tickets under an idea being explored by the district’s safety department.

The head of Denver Public Schools’ safety department says the goal would actually be to end the “school-to-prison pipeline” that criminalizes students for misbehavior at school.

The idea is that giving more authority to school safety officers who have experience with children and training in the district’s restorative justice model would mean outside police get called less often, even for matters that are potentially criminal.

This is not yet a formal proposal, but the idea is already generating pushback.

Local organization Padres y Jóvenes Unidos has worked for years to reduce harsh disciplinary practices in the district, and its staff say certifying safety patrol officers as police officers would represent a big step backward.

“To do this would undo everything you have stood on national platforms bragging about,” said Monica Acosta, the organizing director at Padres y Jóvenes Unidos. “Going down this road would double down on policing and criminalizing students of color.”

About 77 percent of the 92,600 Denver Public Schools students are children of color. Approximately 67 percent of students come from low-income families.

Police in schools is a controversial topic in Denver. Staff and students at an alternative school called RiseUp Community School are speaking out this week about an incident in which Denver police searched for a student the principal told them wasn’t there. The principal said police officers pulled their guns on a teacher during the search.

The incident sparked intense backlash – and an apology from Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

“What happened should not have happened,” he said at a school board meeting Thursday night. He said the district will participate in a city investigation of the incident and work “to ensure something like this does not ever happen again.”

RiseUp student Mary Jimenez said she and her peers were left feeling disrespected and unsafe.

“Because we are students of color and students of low-income, we get harassed and pushed around and we’re expected not to fight back,” Jimenez told the school board.

Although the incident involved city police officers, not district safety officers, community activists said it’s an example of why law enforcement doesn’t belong in schools. Armed officers create a hostile learning environment, they said.

But Denver Public Schools Chief of Safety Mike Eaton said school policing is different than municipal policing. Whereas city police would be more likely to use the criminal justice system to respond to a report of a student getting into a physical fight or having illegal drugs on campus, Eaton said district officers would be trained to first look to the discipline policy.

The policy emphasizes that consequences should be age-appropriate and that the focus should be on correcting student behavior. “Interventions should provide students an opportunity to learn from their mistakes,” the policy says, “and re-engage the student in learning.”

The district safety department employs about 135 staff members, Eaton said. Of those, 35 are armed safety patrol officers who are not assigned to a particular school but respond to incidents across the district. Those are the only officers the district would seek to certify as police, he said. Unarmed school-based campus safety officers would not be certified.

Authorizing any new group as police officers requires approval from state lawmakers.

Denver Public Schools already has 16 “school resource officers,” which are city police officers assigned to work in its large high schools and a few middle schools. Eaton said his aim would not be to increase the number of school resource officers but rather to give the district’s own security staff the discretion to handle police matters.

“We have the opportunity to directly impact the school-to-prison pipeline, to eliminate or reduce it,” Eaton said. School policing, he said, “focuses on restorative and redemptive practices in dealing with students. Students are young. They’re going to make mistakes.”

Several large, urban school districts across the country have their own police forces, including districts in Cleveland, Atlanta, and Miami. Before moving forward with a proposal in Denver, Eaton said he’d seek input from students, parents, and community members.

He has floated the idea by the Denver school board. The board president and vice president said they’re open to discussing any ideas that would make students safer. But president Anne Rowe said she understands why the community might be concerned.

“I can appreciate the initial reaction of folks when they think about an urban district thinking about certifying their officers,” she said. “That’s going to require a lot of community engagement and getting down to: What are we trying to accomplish by doing that?”