The Other 60 Percent

Boot camp aims to remake school meals

Mindi Wolf, food service director for Keenesburg and Fort Lupton schools, uses a meat thermometer to check the doneness of some roasted chicken.

Wendy Blake and her two kitchen assistants turned out 56,000 meals this past school year to feed the students in Wiggins. Blake, the food services director for the school district, admits they relied on a lot of processed frozen food in order to do it.

But Blake says she learned a valuable lesson in kitchen time management this week. “I’ve learned it takes the same half hour to thaw and reheat chicken nuggets that it takes to roast a fresh chicken,” she said.

You can bet that Wiggins students are going to be seeing more roasted chicken and fewer chicken nuggets next year. More fresh produce and less frozen commodities. More scratch cooking and less reheated processed fare.

PHOTO: Oliver Morrison
Wiggins food services director Wendy Blake gets a lesson in handling roasted chicken.

Blake was one of two dozen nutrition directors and school cafeteria staff to participate in a free five-day School Chef Culinary Boot Camp at Adams City High School in Commerce City this week. By the end of July, more than 100 school food service workers from 32 districts around the state will have been through the training, which is also scheduled for Colorado Springs, Montrose and Aurora. Last year, 11 districts participated in similar boot camps.

The boot camps, led by two New York City chefs who specialize in school lunch reform, are coordinated by LiveWell Colorado and funded by the Colorado Health Foundation and by a federal grant. The students get hands-on training in the fundamentals of scratch cooking, knife skills, kitchen time management, food safety, recipe and menu development, breakfast strategies and tips on things like commodity ordering and even promoting nutritious school lunches on Facebook.

Total investment in each student is about $3,000, said Venita Robinson-Currie, who is coordinating the boot camps for LiveWell.

“I don’t expect everything will change tomorrow,” said Chef Andrea Martin, who put the students through their paces Thursday morning barbecuing chicken, whipping up mashed potatoes and enough other dishes to serve a cafeteria-ful of visitors, there to check out the progress of the boot camp. “But we’re teaching them culinary techniques, professionalism. And there are some immediate steps they can all take. They can look at what they’re serving. They can eliminate chocolate milk and replace it with low-fat milk. They can serve cereal with little or no added sugar. They can make sauces and salad dressings from scratch.”

“Our goal is to ensure that every student in Colorado gets nourishing and delicious meals at school, which is vitally important in reducing childhood obesity,” said Maren C. Stewart, president and CEO of LiveWell Colorado. “These boot camps do not simply teach school food service personnel how to prepare healthier meals. They also arm them with the tools to build and sustain school food programs that will positively impact the health of Colorado’s children.”

And by all accounts, Colorado’s children are in dire need of some help. A 2008 study found that only 8 percent of Colorado children eat the recommended amounts of fruit and vegetables daily. More than a quarter of children ages 10-17 in Colorado are overweight or obese. In 2003, Colorado ranked third in the nation for fewest obese children. By 2007, Colorado had slipped to 23rd.

Weight problems are particularly acute among the low income. According to a 2007 study, 24.7 percent of Colorado children who live in households where the income is less than $25,000 are obese. In households where income is greater than $75,000, just 8.8 percent are obese.

Since school lunches and breakfasts take on an especially critical role in meeting the nutritional needs of the poor, the culinary boot camps are being offered free to school districts of at least 5,000 students in which at least 40 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunches. In Commerce City – Adams County District 14 – 82 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunches.

In addition to the training, each participating district will receive a grant of $1,000 to buy kitchen equipment to help in the preparation of fresh foods.

Culinary boot camp students sample the fresh mashed potatoes.

“We have a lot of equipment issues,” complained Mindi Wolf, food services director for Keenesburg and Fort Lupton schools. “We have ovens and that’s it. If we could get an immersion blender and some slicers, then we could do a lot of stuff. But we just don’t have the staff right now to be slicing vegetables. Maybe in two or three years…”

Back in the kitchen, Jeremy West, director of food services for Weld County District 6 in Greeley, marveled at the low-fat macaroni-and-cheese dish he was making. “We learned to make a sauce from butternut squash, so there’s actually very little cheese in this,” he said. “It’s very low-fat, and it’s delicious. We could do this in Greeley.”

For more information

Click here to read the 2009 Colorado Health Report Card, published by the Colorado Health Foundation

Poverty in America

Memphis woman’s tragic death prompts reflection. Could vacant schools help in the fight against homelessness?

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Graves Elementary School in South Memphis has been boarded up since its closure in 2014. It's one of 10 vacant school buildings in the city.

The death of a Memphis woman sleeping on a bench across from City Hall in frigid temperatures unleashed a furor of frustration this week across social media.

As Memphians speculated how someone could freeze to death in such a public place, some pointed to limited public transportation, one of the nation’s highest poverty rates, and entry fees to homeless shelters. The discussion yielded one intriguing suggestion:

About 650 Memphis students were considered homeless during the 2015-16 school year, meaning their families either were on the streets, living in cars or motels, or doubling up with friends and relatives.

At the same time, Shelby County Schools has an adequate supply of buildings. The district had 10 vacant structures last fall after shuttering more than 20 schools since 2012, with more closures expected in the next few years.

But what would need to happen for schools to become a tool against homelessness? Some cities already have already begun to tap that inventory.

Shelby County Schools has been eager to get out of the real estate business, though it’s not exactly giving away its aging buildings. In 2016, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the school system should “repurpose some of these buildings and … anchor some of these communities and rebuild and refurbish these communities instead of tearing stuff down.” The conversation was part of Memphis 3.0, the city’s first strategic plan since 1981 to guide growth for years to come.

District policy allows for “adaptive reuse” to lease vacant buildings for community development including affordable housing, community centers, libraries, community gardens, or businesses. A change requires a community needs assessment and input from neighborhood leaders and organizations before the school board can vote on a recommendation.

But proposals to transform schools into housing haven’t emerged in Memphis.

The Memphis Housing Authority, which oversees federal dollars for housing development, has a two-year exclusive right to purchase two former schools near downtown. But talk has focused on using that space for an early childhood center, not housing, according to High Ground News.

Under state law, districts must give charter schools, which are privately managed but publicly funded, serious consideration to take over a closed building.

That has happened for some Memphis schools, but high maintenance costs for the old buildings are a major deterrent. They also present a significant challenge for any entity looking to convert a structure into a homeless shelter or affordable housing.

Of the district’s 10 empty school buildings, most have a relatively low “facility condition index,” or FCI rate, which measures the maintenance and repair costs against the current replacement cost. The higher the number, the less cost-effective.


*as of October 2017

The idea to turn vacant school buildings into livable space is not new. Across the nation, some communities have found workable solutions to address the excess real estate.

In Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization transformed an empty four-story elementary school that was frequented by trespassers and drug users into housing for 37 homeless veterans and low-income seniors. The $14 million project, led by Help USA, took advantage of federal dollars set aside to house homeless veterans.

Last summer, leaders in Daytona Beach, Florida, pitched in $3.5 million in public funds to help a local nonprofit convert an elementary school into a homeless shelter. Despite pushback from neighborhood residents, the plan secured a unanimous vote from its county council.

In Denver, school officials proposed turning an elementary school into affordable housing for teachers to combat expensive living costs and rapid gentrification. That idea is still up in the air, with some residents lobbying to reopen the building as a school.

Detroit is riddled with empty school buildings. Developers there are buying up properties to repurpose for residential use as they wait to see what the market will bear. The city’s private Catholic schools have seen more success in transforming old buildings into apartments, luxury condominiums, or a boutique office building because they are smaller, easier to renovate, and don’t have the same deed restrictions as public schools.

The same appears to be true in Baltimore, where a nonprofit group converted a 25,000-square-foot Catholic school into housing for women and children. The $6 million project, completed last month, uses federal housing vouchers to subsidize rent.

In Memphis, the community is still assessing what resources need to be tapped in response to this week’s tragic death.

“Simply dismissing this as a tragedy will only allow us to continue to absolve ourselves from the apathy and selfishness that allow people to go unseen,” said the Rev. Lisa Anderson, a Cumberland Presbyterian pastor who is executive director of the city’s Room in the Inn ministry.

academic insurance

Children’s Health Insurance Program is on the brink. Here’s why that matters for education

The fate of the Children’s Health Insurance Program is in Congress’s hands — and children’s education, not just their health, may be at stake.

Congress passed a temporary extension of funding for of CHIP in December, through some states will run out of money shortly. The end of the program would come with obvious potential consequences, as CHIP, which covers approximately 9 million children, gives participants more access to health and dental care.

There may also be a less obvious result: Research has found that access to health insurance helps kids perform better on tests and stay in school longer.

A 2016 study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Human Resources, found that expanding Medicaid in the 1980s and 1990s increased students’ likelihood of completing high school and college.

“Our results indicate that the long-run benefits of public health insurance are substantial,” the researchers wrote.

Similarly, an earlier paper shows that broadening access to Medicaid or CHIP led to increases in student achievement.

“We find evidence that test scores in reading, but not math, increased for those children affected at birth by the increase in health insurance eligibility,” researchers Phillip Levine and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach wrote.

In short, research suggests that when kids are healthier, they do better in school. That’s in line with common sense, as well as studies showing that children benefit academically when their families have access to direct anti-poverty programs like the earned income tax credit or cash benefits.

(Even if CHIP ends, affected children might still have access to subsidized insurance through the Affordable Care Act or other means. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that will be more costly in the long run.)

Congress appears likely to vote on a bill this week that includes a six-year CHIP extension, as as well as a temporary spending measure to avoid a federal government shutdown.