Lunch Line

Outspoken student, burned sandwich and frozen fruit spur meal changes in southwest Denver

PHOTO: Padres y Jóvenes Unidos
This lunch was served at Kepner Middle School on May 12. Descriptions were added by the Padres employee who received the lunch. (The chicken patties are pre-cooked by the vendor, but DPS officials said sometimes there are red spots in the meat that lead people to believe the meat is undercooked.)

The story didn’t start with the burned sandwich bun or the still-frozen strawberries on the lunch tray at Kepner Middle School in Southwest Denver. It started months earlier with a slow simmer of dissatisfaction over the quality of the school’s food.

But when that meal was served on May 12 during a lunch visit by school board member Rosemary Rodriguez, a district administrator, and representatives from Padres y Jóvenes Unidos, it perfectly captured the ongoing complaints: Food wasn’t prepared properly, some items ran out before the end of lunch, and there weren’t enough choices.

It was a Kepner student named Stephanie Torres, speaking about Padres’ health justice platform, who helped sound the alarm about such problems at a school board meeting in April. Her remarks spurred plans for the lunchtime visit by district officials. The visit, while coordinated in advance by central administrators, was not announced to Kepner’s kitchen manager or principal.

Monica Acosta, lead health justice organizer at Padres, went along on the visit and snapped a photo of her lunch tray.

“It was heartbreaking. That’s the type of food Kepner students have been having all year long,” she said.

In the last three weeks, Torres, Acosta, and others who participated in the lunch visit have reported positive changes in Kepner’s cafeteria.

Questions or comments about DPS meals?
Contact: Theresa Pena
Regional Coordinator for Outreach and Engagement
720-423-5657
[email protected]

There’s no more frozen fruit or expired milk, and there are more hot entrée choices. Next year, there are plans to put Kepner on a different meal model that will increase daily hot entrée offerings from four to six, in line with most other middle schools.

“We’re very thankful those changes were implemented immediately,” said Acosta.

She said officials from the DPS nutrition services department have twice met with Padres representatives, including parents from Kepner and other district schools where complaints have surfaced.

“It’s definitely on the right track,” she said.

Navigating a bureaucracy

By most accounts, the changes at Kepner represent a win, but they also raise questions about what caused the problems in the first place, how pervasive meal complaints are in the district, and what mechanisms exist for students and parents to air their concerns about school food.

Theresa Peña, a former Denver school board member and now a district employee, said the nutrition services department is willing to have conversations with students, parents and school personnel about food. In fact, that’s a large part of her new job as the department’s regional coordinator for outreach and engagement.

If there are concerns, she said, “we are absolutely willing to do something different.”

"The biggest complaint I hear from students is the lack of variety."

Still, she agreed that in a bureaucracy like DPS, which serves nearly 80,000 meals at 185 schools a day, it’s not always clear to students or parents whom to approach when there’s a problem. Closing that “communication gap” represents a big opportunity for the department, she said.

There’s been talk about putting kitchen manager’s photos and contact information up in school cafeterias and bringing parents on behind-the-scenes kitchen tours. Currently, the district seeks feedback about school food through student surveys conducted at three mobile food service kiosks. Peña also plans to work with the district’s student board of education to solicit feedback.

“The biggest complaint I hear from students is the lack of variety,” said Peña.

A varied landscape

The problems at Kepner represent a distinct contrast with what multiple observers say is an upward trajectory for meal program quality districtwide.

About five years ago, DPS began moving away from a menu of processed foods to majority scratch cooking. (Both Kepner’s kitchen manager and another employee there have participated in scratch cooking training.)

The district is also well-known for its robust school farm program, which provides thousands of pounds of fresh produce to school kitchens every year. In addition, all district schools have salad bars.

“DPS is really doing some great things,” said Rainey Wikstrom, a healthy school consultant and DPS parent. “I would say one bad apple doesn’t ruin the whole barrel.”

Still, it’s not clear why the burned bun–ironically one of the district’s scratch-made baked goods—or the frosty strawberries were served on May 12.

“In any large district there’s always going to be a difference between the best intentions of the central office and what actually happens in schools,” said Sarah Kurz, vice president of policy and communications for LiveWell Colorado.

While Peña agreed the bun should have been thrown out, she said the Kepner kitchen, like others across the district, has struggled with short staffing throughout the year. She recalled that the workers were barely keeping up when she went through the lunch line herself that day.

Wikstrom said when she recently read a job posting for a school kitchen manager, it hit her hard how much is expected for a relatively low wage.

“We don’t pay our food service staff well…We need to offer them more support and more financial support,” she said.

As for the reason that Kepner students had few entree choices for most of this year, that’s because the school’s kitchen provides meals to a nearby district preschool as well and therefore followed a K-8 menu model. That model includes fewer daily choices than a middle or high school model.

A broader problem?

Kepner is not the only DPS school where complaints have surfaced about school food.

In fact, while lunch was the culprit this time around, breakfast has been a target of complaints in Denver and elsewhere over the last couple of years. That’s because more schools have added breakfast in the classroom since the passage of the “Breakfast After the Bell” law in 2013.

That trend, which often means delivering coolers of food to individual classrooms, has contributed to the use of easy-to-distribute, prepackaged items. Thus, there can be a big disconnect between what is served at breakfast and what is served at lunch.

“Breakfast items are not up to par…with where the lunch programs are” said Wikstrom. “[They] meet the requirements but don’t match the message or the philosophy.”

Padres parent Leticia Zuniga, who has a preschool daughter and first grade son, said through a translator that she is unhappy with how many menu items are flour-based.

Her daughter is clinically overweight and Zuniga worries that school food is not teaching her healthy habits. Her son, meanwhile, is not overweight, but comes home from STRIVE Prep-Ruby Hill two or three times a week saying he didn’t eat lunch.

“He doesn’t like the food,” she said.

In February, two students at McAuliffe International Academy wrote an article for their student newspaper in which they skewered certain hot breakfast items.

The girls wrote: “…it is a disappointment when your teacher opens the hot food container and all you see is half burnt pizza in a bag or half melted omelet in a bag. Even teachers think it’s gross.”

Peña acknowledged such complaints and said the district’s breakfast pizza has drawn particular ire.

She’s heard from multiple parents: “We think the idea of breakfast pizza is just wrong.”

How are you feeling?

With plan to focus on teen health, Adams 12 school district opens new clinic

PHOTO: Jasleen_kaur/Creative Commons

The Adams 12 school district, Colorado’s sixth-largest, will open its first school-based health clinic this fall at Thornton High School.

The new clinic will offer routine physicals, sick care and mental health counseling to the 1,675 students at Thornton High as well as another 1,000 students who take classes at the district’s career and technical education center on the same campus.

By providing a convenient source of health care, particularly for low-income students, advocates say school-based health centers help prevent and address health problems that can impede learning.

Statewide, the number of school-based health centers has grown over the last decade — from 40 in 2007 to 59 this fall.

Despite the overall upward trend, not all school-based health centers survive. For example, the clinic at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, a high poverty school in the Jeffco district, closed its doors last spring.

A district official there said the nonprofit organization providing the health services, which were available to Jefferson students and other local residents, decided to depart because district security logistics made it difficult to keep the clinic open during evening and weekend hours.

In Adams 12, planning for the new clinic began in 2015. A district committee chose Thornton High to house the health center because of the high level of poverty in that area and because the campus, which also houses the Bollman Technical Education Center, serves the largest number of high school students in the district.

District spokesman Kevin Denke said the decision to focus on a teenage population stems from the fact that adolescents tend to see doctors less often than younger students and may be starting to engage in risky behaviors, such as sexual activity, alcohol use or drug use.

The neighboring Boulder Valley school district also has a school-based health clinic in the works, though it’s not expected to open until the fall of 2019. That clinic, the district’s first, will be located at the Arapahoe Campus, which houses Arapahoe Ridge High School and the district’s career and technical education center.

District officials said the clinic was originally slated to open earlier, but the launch was pushed back to align with a planned remodel of the career and technical education space.

In the meantime, the district will expand a dental care program that’s gradually ramped up at the Arapahoe Campus. Begun four years ago as a basic screening program that referred kids with cavities and other problems to area dentists, the program last year provided cleanings, fluoride treatments and sealants to 42 students at Arapahoe Ridge and two other district high schools.

This year, the program will offer the same services, plus treatment for minor cavities, to students from all district high schools. The goal is to serve 250 students by the end of the year.

Fighting hunger

No more cheese sandwiches: Denver restores hot lunches for students in debt

Students at Denver's Fairmont ECE-8 have a choice of fruits and vegetables for lunch. (Denver Post file photo)

Denver students will start the year off with lunch debts paid off and a new promise that falling behind on lunch payments will not mean a cold “alternative” meal.

The district announced the change this week.

“We will feed every kid, every day,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg wrote. “We know hungry kids aren’t the best learners.”

In some districts, including DPS, students who fall behind on lunch payments may be given alternative meals such as a cheese sandwich, or graham crackers and milk.

Boasberg said all kids will get regular hot-lunch options while payment issues are resolved and the district works on a long-term strategy.

In the last school year, Denver students had accumulated a balance of more than $13,000. The debt would be higher if some schools had not set aside money to help students.

According to the district, schools paid for more than 37,700 meals during the 2016-17 year.

The district said that donations raised by students through a nonprofit called KidsGiving365, and by Shift Workspaces, founded by Grant Barnhill, a parent of an incoming DPS student, will cover all the outstanding lunch debt of students in the district.

In DPS, all students receive free breakfast. Students who qualify for free lunch based on family income do not make payments and do not accrue debt.

For 2017-18, a family of four must earn less than $31,980 to qualify for free lunch, or less than $45,510 to qualify for a reduced price lunch.

The announcement from DPS reminds families that the application for free or discounted lunch can be submitted throughout the year, and that students are eligible regardless of immigration status.