Montrose was chosen last year by the Colorado Health Foundation to receive grants, equipment upgrades and summer chef training to bring fresh, non-processed foods to school lunchrooms.
While Oliver’s transformation of school kids to try fresh foods instead of tater tots, chicken nuggets and French fries was demonstrated in only a few episodes, Montrose’s efforts to create healthy but tasty cafeteria food goes back more than a year, said Nutritional Services Director Kathy DelTonto.
Menu changes have been introduced at several schools this year, and by next school year, the district will only use fresh meat and local produce and vegetables as much as possible.
The district has already switched from frozen bread dough back to homemade whole grain bread that’s featured on almost every school menu.
“Instead of using processed meat, we are now purchasing raw, frozen, ground beef, turkey, pork, chicken,” DelTonto said. “We’re going back to the basics of scratch cooking and raw state of meat with no additives and no preservatives.”
Corn dogs and hot dogs are off the menu, DelTonto said, and pre-processed Salisbury steak is gone as well.
“The challenge is bringing back some of those old recipes, and getting kids to try it,” DelTonto said. “It takes 12 times before they will actually try it, but last week we experimented with chipotle chicken, and it was very well received.”
The school district will also improve students’ nutrition by offering free breakfast and lunch at Centennial Middle in Montrose and Olathe Middle School this summer. Breakfast will be served at both schools from 7:30 to 8:15 a.m., and lunch will be served from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. from June 7 through July 15.
No registration is required, and any child from age one to 18 can take part, she said.
“The meal has to be consumed on site, but you don’t have to call ahead, and you can stop if you’re planning to come through town,” she said. “And if you’re out skateboarding, come on down and have lunch.”
The summer meal program is working in partnership with the Backpack for Kids program where kids can take home nonperishable food for the weekend during the school year. The district is also working to refer families to other outlets for food, which is necessary for some, DelTonto said.
“I think in these economic times that hunger is a very silent thing,” she said. “Sometimes people don’t want to talk about it, but they may just need a little help getting through.”
The school district underwent a massive survey last year, funded by the Colorado Health Foundation, and used its Healthy Schools Task Force described the school district’s problem as, “does not have nutritious, affordable and appealing food in their schools or community.”
As a result of the survey, the foundation released a 34-page report last July titled, “Healthy Schools: A Strategy for Montrose Re-1J School District.”
The district has made strides in providing healthier, more appealing meals, the report states, by eliminating å la carte fare in vending machines, even though it caused a revenue drop of $23,000 to the district’s nutrition services department, putting it in the red.
DelTonto and her staff are determined to make healthy choices for students, and are working with local farmers and ranchers to buy more local products.
“We were purchasing potatoes frozen in stages from fries to hash browns to wedges, but we made the shift this year to use up last year’s commodity order, and next year will be baked potatoes or roasted potatoes, with minimal processing,” she said.
School cooks will also make homemade salad dressings, barbecue sauce and gravies from scratch, she said. “The biggest piece of the change is homemade bread and offering fresh fruits and vegetables on a daily basis.”
Chocolate milk has also been taken off the menu, to the consternation of some, and not all students are happy with the changes.
“They want their tater tots,” DelTonto said.
With money tight, grants from the Colorado Health Foundation have meant a great deal to the school district, DelTonto said, paying for freezers for two schools that had none, and providing about $110,000 in new kitchen supplies, from a tilt pan for cooking vegetables to self-service salad bars.
In June, the foundation will underwrite a week-long “culinary boot camp” for 32 school cooks from the Western Slope, with 10 of those slots taken by Montrose district staff.
“We’ll have five different chefs who will teach things like knife skills, how to make sausage from scratch, how to cut up and deal with raw foods, and we’ll also be seeing ourselves as professionals,” she said.
In mid-August, the team of chefs will come back for two days of intense training for all 42 people who work in food service for Montrose schools, and classes will be offered to students in hopes they will take their new nutritional skills home.
Spreading good eating and cooking habits to the community is vital, DelTonto said, because of the threats to students’ healthy caused by childhood obesity and juvenile diabetes.
“This is a really exciting opportunity we simply couldn’t afford on our own,” DelTonto said. “It’s nice to stand in agreement with each other for the good of our children, because that’s what we’re here for, and we’re really seeing we’re making a difference.”