RIDGWAY – Herb-specked Alfredo rests atop a thick nest of handmade fettuccini. Thin slices of apple and cucumber share a bed of crisp lettuce with snow peas and sunflower seeds. A decorative medley of sliced fruit, presented in color-coordinating layers within a tall glass jar, sits ready for second helpings. The scent of fresh baked bread, perhaps the most heavenly of all smells, wafts from a kitchen garnished with flowers and fruit- and vegetable-filled Mason jars. Tablecloths cover the serving tables.
If this lunch hadn’t just been served on a divided tray, it would be easy to mistake it for something other than a school lunch. Red plastic tray aside, the flavor of this school lunch could fool anyone – even an aspiring foodie such as this reporter, who can’t remember the last time she was served noodles that weren’t from a bag. Whenever, or wherever, that was, it definitely cost more than $2.50.
Ridgway School’s “lunch lady” Denean Colby and her kitchen crew have reinvented the school lunch program, one divided tray at a time. After taking over as head chef at Ridgway Schools three years ago, Colby has bucked the boundaries of traditional school lunch fare (think fruit cocktail and chicken nuggets) in favor of bringing Ridgway’s students wholesome, made from scratch meals crafted from fresh ingredients. And more nutritious, delicious meals aren’t all the innovative school meal program has brought to Ridgway’s schools; teachers report that kids are more ready to learn after eating a whole grain and fresh fruit and vegetable-hearty meal at Ridgway’s lunchrooms. Coinciding with the revamped school food program has been an increase in Ridgway students’ test scores, and the recent successes of Ridgway’s athletics teams.
What’s more, the toughest critics – the students – love their lunchroom fare. At the Secondary School, where juniors and seniors are allowed to go off-campus at lunchtime, more than 80 percent of the student body chose to remain on campus and eat at Colby’s kitchen, making the lunchroom a school family room of sorts.
But Colby and her fans worry that Ridgway Schools’ days of homemade chicken fettuccine Alfredo lunches may be over, one of the unwanted outcomes of a shrinking school budget.
“Next year, we are facing a very challenging financial situation, due to less funding from the state. The budget for 2009-2010 that the board just approved is not ideal in any way and we had to cut back on things all over the place,” Ridgway School Board President Kara Mueller said.
One of those places, not surprisingly, is the school food program, which can serve up to 300 meals a day (breakfast and lunch) at the Secondary School alone. The program has been subsidized by the school district since its inception in 2005, but finding a balance between serving wholesome, fresh cooked meals – and paying the people to prepare those meals, instead of simply hiring someone to toss a pan of frozen, pre-cooked items into the oven – within the set budget has proved challenging.
Both the elementary school and secondary school kitchens came in over budget at the end of last school year. This year, a food spending freeze was put into place during the last weeks of the school year to try to prevent that from happening again. Mueller said that the spending freeze worked for the RES kitchen, which is projected to come in slightly under budget. But the RSS kitchen will be more than $20,000 over budget. “So, the discussion has been, ‘What needs to change so that this program is sustainable in the future?’” Mueller said. The subsidy, plus budget overruns at the end of the year, have risen from $40,000 in 2004-2005 to $84,000 for this school year. Meanwhile, the school district had budgeted for only a $62,000 subsidy this year.
To cut down on food costs in the past, Colby would employ cost-cutting measures like buying in bulk and connecting with local providers willing to make a deal. The school food program also received big discounts and even donations of fresh produce from regional farms, like Shining Mountain Herbs, Circle A Gardens and Maddox Orchards. But as Colby said: “There is a huge difference between just warming something up, and actually cooking something from scratch.”
RSS kitchen baker Trisha Middleton would bake 14 loaves of bread a day. The kitchen’s weekly food menu would include such unconventional school lunch fare as spelt bread, sushi, quinoa, even Brussels sprouts; all foods that boast rich nutritive content, but also take more time and energy to prepare than normal school kitchens’ standard heat-and-eat fare. Up to now, Colby’s secondary school kitchen has operated with up to five chefs working a combination of full- and part-time shifts. Next year, because of the diminished budget, that number is projected to go down to two full-time, or one full-time and two-part time, kitchen staff – a move that Colby says will make sustaining Ridgway’s school food program as it has been nearly impossible.
Originally, the innovative food program at Ridgway Schools was envisioned by a forward-thinking group of parents, who in 2005 created the Wellness and Health Committee at the prompting of the Ridgway School Board. Ridgway parent Sheila Manzagol was on that committee, and explains that the group’s goal was to try to improve upon the nutritive value of the food served to Ridgway students by finding ways to increase the use of whole, unprocessed foods within the schools’ food service program.
“It’s difficult, because typically the government [-sponsored school food] programs use lots of very processed foods. So there may be lots of freebies, but they aren’t always what’s most nutritious for the kids,” she said. The group looked at other schools’ outside-the-box food programs and used those examples to create what has become a very well-liked program in Ridgway. “When it first started, kids were running down the halls to get to the lunchroom. That’s unheard of at other schools,” Manzagol said.
Now, Manzagol and a new group of parents and students are hoping that the grassroots efforts that helped create Ridgway’s food program in the first place will now help it weather the current financial storms. More than a dozen local parents and a handful of students attended the May 21 School Board Meeting to publicly support the continuation of the schools’ current food program. What came out of that was across-the-board agreement that the program has been a success, and the board announced it would subsidize the program next school year at a level of $52,000. “I think this shows that the board is still very committed to a high quality program, since that would pay for roughly one and half teachers,” Mueller said. “We know that the food the kids eat during the day has impact on their academic performance and overall well-being. We believe that we can still have a high quality food program at this level of subsidy.”
That budget would, however, mean less cooks in Ridgway Schools’ kitchens, and Manzagol and other food program proponents worry that a reduction in staff will make it difficult to continue to provide students with the high quality food they’ve become accustomed to. Manzagol and a handful of local parents have thus formed a committee whose task is to find creative ways to increase revenues for Ridgway Schools’ food program. The committee will meet this month, and go back to the school board with their findings.
“You don’t paint the Mona Lisa and then go back to paint-by-numbers,” Manzagol says. “I just can’t imagine our kids with hotdogs and tater tots.”