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

#WontBeErased

Denver school board pledges to make sure LGBTQ students are ‘seen, accepted, and celebrated’

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Ellie Ozbayrak, 4, sports rainbow wings at the annual PrideFest celebration at Civic Center Park June 18, 2016.

In response to reports that the Trump administration may seek to narrowly define gender as a condition determined by genitalia at birth, the Denver school board Thursday unanimously adopted a resolution in support of transgender students and staff members.

“The board, with its community members and partners, find this federal action to be cruel and harmful to our students and employees,” the resolution said. Denver Public Schools “will not allow our students, staff, and families to feel that they are being erased.”

The Trump administration has not yet made a final decision. But the threat of reversing actions taken under the Obama administration to recognize transgender Americans has prompted protests across the country, including a recent walkout at Denver’s North High School.

Several Denver students thanked the school board Thursday for the resolution, which says the board “wholeheartedly embraces DPS’s LGBTQ+ students, employees, and community members for the diversity they bring to our schools and workplaces, and strives to ensure that they are seen, accepted, and celebrated for who they truly are.”

“It is amazing to hear each and every single one of your ‘ayes,’” said a student named Skyler.

The resolution lists several ways the district supports transgender students and staff, including not requiring them “to undertake any expensive formal legal process to change their names in DPS student or personnel records” and honoring their pronoun preferences.

Read the entire resolution below.

making moves

In New York, a new focus on housing could also spur more diversity in schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
In 2016, the Community Education Council in Manhattan's District 3 approved a controversial school rezoning aimed in part at integrating schools.

On a recent morning in Brooklyn, principals, parents, and education leaders from across the state gathered to drill into the root causes of school segregation and develop plans to spur more diversity. Joining the discussion was someone unexpected: a representative from the state’s Fair and Equitable Housing Office.

“We want to see within your districts, what your challenges are, what your ideas are,” said Nadya Salcedo, the office’s director. “You can’t talk about integration and segregation without talking about housing.”

It is often taken as a given that schools are segregated because neighborhoods are. Yet the twin challenges of integrating where children live and learn are rarely tackled in tandem. In New York, two recent moves have the potential to address both.

The first: State education leaders who are working with local districts to craft school integration plans are also inviting housing officials to the table early on — and plan to include them throughout the process.

The second: In New York City, housing officials have launched a tiny pilot program to help low-income renters move into neighborhoods that offer more opportunities, defined partly by school performance. The initiative isn’t meant to tackle school segregation directly, but if it grows, it could result in more diverse classrooms.

Both are small and unconnected, involving officials from different agencies. Details about both the state and city efforts are scant, for now. But taken together, they suggest a new energy toward tackling housing issues that are often a barrier to more integrated schools.

“There have been some ripples of hope out there,” said Fred Freiberg, executive director of the Fair Housing Justice Center. “But we still have a long ways to go.”

The meeting in Brooklyn brought together school district leaders who have been armed with a state grant to help improve schools by integrating them. Now, housing officials have been looped into that work to brainstorm how to collaborate.

The housing department “is working to help desegregate communities,” spokeswoman Charni Sochet wrote in an email. “This includes working with our federal, State and local partners.”

Similarly, the city began its housing pilot this summer but didn’t share details until this week, when the Wall Street Journal profiled the program. The 45 families in the program’s first phase are getting assistance searching for a new home — including rent vouchers that are worth more in wealthier neighborhoods, financial counseling to help them afford a move, and support navigating the intimidating New York City housing market.

“The mayor’s education and housing plans take dead aim at achievement and economic gaps decades in the making,” Jaclyn Rothenberg, a city spokeswoman, wrote in an email. “All students benefit from diverse classrooms. Neighborhoods benefit from a diverse community.”

The pilot is striking given what Mayor Bill de Blasio has said about housing in the city in the past. When asked how he plans to tackle school segregation, he has often argued that the city’s power is limited because schools reflect entrenched housing patterns and private choices by families about where to live. “We cannot change the basic reality of housing in New York City,” he said in 2017.

Families with rental vouchers often find it difficult to move out of segregated neighborhoods where schools tend to struggle under the weight of concentrated poverty. The city’s pilot could tackle those issues.

“At least now I’ll have a chance to apply to some of these apartments,” one participant, the mother of a 10- and 12-year-old, told the Wall Street Journal. “I’m moving to a better school district, and nothing else matters.”

In places such as Baltimore, similar “mobility” programs have included a sharp focus on helping families move to areas with better schools, and making sure that students adjust well to their new classrooms. On a wide scale, such efforts could create more diverse neighborhoods and learning environments, since income tracks closely with race and ethnicity — and schools with high test scores are often filled with white students and those from more affluent families.

It could also have profound effects on how children perform academically and later in life. Moving to a neighborhood with lower poverty rates can boost college attendance and future earnings, according to some of the most influential research on the topic.

Montgomery County, Maryland offers another example, where the housing commission randomly assigned families to public housing instead of letting them choose where to live. There, children in public housing who went to “advantaged” schools in less impoverished neighborhoods did better in math and reading than their peers who lived in public housing but attended the district’s least-advantaged schools, according to a report by the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank.

That result hews to a growing body of research that has found that students benefit from attending schools that are integrated by race and socioeconomic class.

How the city implements its pilot will matter if students and schools are to benefit most. Although some studies have found that housing programs can improve affected students’ academic performance, the effect can be modest and vary greatly depending on where families relocate and which schools their children attend.

New York City presents some additional challenges. With a vast system of school choice and programs that selectively sort students based on their past academic performance, students and neighborhoods aren’t as closely linked here as they are in other cities.

Recent research found New York City schools might be slightly less segregated if students actually stayed in their neighborhood schools. And simply living near a school does not guarantee access in cases where competitive entrance criteria are used to admit students — a process called screening that critics say contributes to segregation. School attendance boundaries can also separate students by race and class even when they live side by side, a dynamic exemplified by recent rezoning battles on the Upper West Side and in gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhoods.

In New York, the scale of the challenge is huge: The city has one of the most segregated school systems in the country, an ignominious superlative that also applies to neighborhoods. The politics of unraveling these issues can be explosive. Many advocates for both fair housing and more diverse schools caution that policies should work both ways, giving low-income families and people of color the chance to leave under-resourced schools and neighborhoods, while also boosting investments in classrooms and communities that have been historically neglected.

“It shouldn’t be an either-or,” said Freiberg, the Fair Housing Justice Center director. “You’re going to have to do both.”

Though conversations seem to just be getting started, integration advocates and housing experts are heartened by the small steps already taken.

“This is a dream come true for people in the housing world,” said Vicki Been, a former city housing official who is now faculty director at the New York University Furman Center. “We have always been looking for ways to get families into neighborhoods that have better schools, lower crimes, better job opportunities.”

Reema Amin contributed reporting.