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.

Unmet needs

A social worker in every grade? Perhaps for 10 Colorado elementary schools

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Fifth-graders practice mindfulness at Munroe Elementary School in Denver.

Educators, parents, and social workers told of students struggling with depression, younger and younger children attempting suicide, and youths ending up in prison. A bill approved Thursday by a Colorado House committee would pay for a three-year trial to provide social and emotional help for elementary students in the hopes of addressing some of these challenges.

If approved by the full legislature and signed into law, the measure would create a three-year pilot program at 10 high-needs schools. It is estimated to cost about $5 million a year. House Bill 1017 would place social workers, counselors or psychologists in every elementary grade at the test schools starting next year.

In an impassioned presentation, bill sponsor state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, said schools need more social workers “to stop our children from dying by suicide, from ending up incarcerated, from being failed by our system.”

Suicide is a leading cause of death among youth ages 10 to 24 in Colorado, and advocates of the bill said schools are often ill-equipped to deal with children suffering from trauma, bullying and behavioral challenges.

The bill was scaled back from an original version that would have cost $16 million a year. Michaelson Jenet said the nearly $5 million annual cost would be funded in part by $2.5 million from the state’s marijuana cash fund, with the rest from private foundations.

The National Association of Social Workers recommends one social worker for every 250 students, and one for every 50 students at high-needs schools.

Colorado schools don’t come close to those numbers.

About one-third of the state’s 178 school districts employed social workers during the 2016-17 school year, the most recent for which data was available from the Colorado Department of Education. Those districts represented about 89 percent of that year’s 905,000 pre-K through 12th grade students.

The nearly 590 social workers employed worked out to less than one full-time employee per 1,000 students.

Englewood’s Sheridan School District had three social workers for 1,511 students, while Yuma County had 1½ social workers for 807 students.

The two largest districts, Denver and Jefferson County, employed more than one-third of school social workers that year, with more than one social worker for every 1,000 students. Denver voters approved a 2016 tax to help pay for more social workers.

But many districts have no social workers. And most school social workers are stretched thin.

Jessie Caggiano is a social worker who serves more than 3,000 students at four high schools in Weld County.

“I’m not able to meet with students effectively on a one-on-one basis, because I’m trying to implement other services schoolwide,” she said. “I’m only at each of my schools one day a week, so I’m not able to meet their needs by any means.”

Darlene Sampson, president of the Colorado chapter of the Association of Black Social Workers, recalled working at a Denver school when a student was killed in the cafeteria.

“Many kids are carrying their trauma in their backpacks into the school,” Sampson said.

And Cam Short-Camilli, representing the Colorado School Social Work Association, said students are facing increased emotional problems at most schools. The increase in youth suicide and suicide attempts is especially difficult, she said. One Denver incident last fall attracted national attention.

“Every school district, every student is impacted, that’s rural, urban, suburban schools,” Short-Camilli said. “In the past five years, I’ve been at elementary schools, and it’s been extremely shocking. Kids at those schools, there’s an immense ripple effect.”

But state Rep. James Wilson, a Salida Republican, questioned whether the pilot program would be possible to replicate because of the high number of professionals needed.

“I’m sitting here feeling like the Grinch,” Wilson said. “I cannot bring myself to put together an unrealistic pilot. Will it really work in the real world?”

State Rep. Janet Buckner, an Aurora Democrat, also expressed concerns, but voted for the bill.

“I’m concerned how we’re going to fund it,” she sad. “The suicide rate is off the chart and our kids need so much help. I don’t think we can wait. I have a lot of phone calls and emails about this bill, people who really need the help.”

HB-1017 next goes to the Appropriations Committee before being considered by the full House, then the Senate. It is one of several measures aimed at offering help for students and their families beyond academics at public schools.

Story time

This Memphis teacher’s favorite student didn’t stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. She taught him a powerful lesson.

PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Daniel Warner teaches at East High School in Memphis.

When one of Daniel Warner’s favorite students refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, he could feel the tension in himself rising.

It was August 2017, the first week of classes, and Warner said he knew how important setting a tone was during the first few days of school.

“Didn’t my teacher prep program teach me that I have to set high expectations in that first week or the year is lost?” asked Warner, a U.S. history teacher at East High School in Memphis. “If I don’t set those, we’re done for.”

But before Warner reacted, he said he took a few moments to reflect on what could be going through her head.

Chalkbeat TN Storytelling Event
PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Daniel Warner tells his story to a crowded room.

It was the Monday after a violent white supremacists rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Stories of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick were again dominating the news, as he remained ostracized for kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality.

Instead of punishing her, Warner said, he refocused on what she might be thinking through as a black American high schooler.

“The lesson she taught me that day was that some of the most harmful instances of school discipline happen when we are too focused on ourselves as teachers,” Warner said.

Warner was one of seven educators and students who participated in a February story storytelling night hosted by Chalkbeat Tennessee, Spillit, and The Knowledge Tree. The stories told centered around school discipline practices, a topic Chalkbeat recently dove into in this special report.

Video Credit: Gillian Wenhold, The Social Exchange. The Social Exchange is a pay-as-you can PR & content creation firm for nonprofits and responsible, women/minority owned businesses.

Here’s an edited transcript of Warner’s story. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity:

It’s a week into school in early August. And kids are just trickling into my senior homeroom mostly asleep, sitting quietly in their desk as 18-year-olds do at 7:15 in the morning…And then morning announcements come on. “Please stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.”

So I stand up, and I say, “Alright y’all, go ahead and stand up with me.” I see these seniors throwing their bodies out of their seats, trying to stand up while they are still asleep. And almost everyone stands up but one girl doesn’t…  

So, my eyes meet this girls eyes as she stays in her seat during the pledge. And I can feel the tension in me of my authority being challenged in the room. And I wonder if everyone else is looking at me, my other students. So I give her a teacher look meant to communicate, “Are you going to stand up?” And she looks at me from across the room and shakes her head and mouths, “I can’t.”

So this student was one of my best students the year before in honors U.S. History. She engaged deeply with the material and personally. She asked questions of herself, of her country, of democracy, what this whole thing is about. She processed the double consciousness she feels of being both black and American. And she did so while being kind, thoughtful hardworking. The student you think of that makes you want to cry, you love that kid so much. I wonder what’s going on, what is she thinking about…

This is a Monday and the weekend before had been the white supremacists march in Charlottesville… When she told me, that she couldn’t stand, I went and sat in the desk next to her…I asked, “What’s keeping you from standing up?”

She started by saying, “I hate,” and she stopped herself. She took a breath, calmed herself down and said, “I just can’t.” And so we just sat there for a second. I could see as I got closer to her that she was flooded with emotion and feeling something deeply. And so we let the announcements end and I tell her, “When I say the pledge I say it more as a hope and a prayer…that there would be liberty and justice for all.” She said, “Yeah, I was thinking about that,” like a good U.S. History student, but she said “things don’t’ seem to be headed that way right now…

The lesson she taught me that day was that some of the most harmful instances of school discipline happen when we are too focused on ourselves as teachers. She showed me that I was a little too focused on how I was being perceived by other students in the classroom. And that I wasn’t focused enough on her and what she might be processing. As teachers, we have all of this opportunity to escalate conflict, I’ve done it plenty of times. But we also have an opportunity to be gracious to students who are working out who they are in public…

This girl wasn’t being disengaged by saying no to me, she was being especially engaged with who she is… When we talk about restorative justice, the first step we have to take is for us as educators and adults, and it’s doing your own emotional work. And we have to ask ourselves questions about our identities. You can only lead someone somewhere if you’ve gone there yourself…

What is it about us when it sets us off when a kid says no to us? Why are we that insecure? … When we pay attention to ourselves, our emotional status, the hurt we’ve felt, the pain we’ve lived through, that is when we can begin paying attention to how formative schools are. They are spaces where folks are working out their identities in public, and that’s when you feel the most self conscious and vulnerable and in need of grace offered by someone else.

So, I hope as we talk about this, we think of ways where we can make school a space for people to be figuring out who they are and not just punished into compliance. In high poverty schools, you talk about compliance like it’s the ultimate behavior. I hope we can make schools where students can learn what it is to seek justice, even when and especially when, things just don’t seem to be headed that way right now.