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.