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.

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

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