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
THERESA_PENA@dpsk12.org

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.”

Unintended consequences

When Denver stopped lunch-shaming, debt from unpaid meals skyrocketed

PHOTO: David Buffington | Getty Images

After the Denver schools chief made a high-profile announcement last August guaranteeing a full meal to students whether or not they had the money to pay, many advocates cheered the end of so-called “lunch-shaming” in the 92,000-student district.

Then came an unpleasant surprise: Debt from unpaid lunches soared, rising to $356,000 from $13,000 the year before.

Denver’s exploding meal debt — amounting to roughly 900 unpaid lunches every school day of the year — illustrates the balancing act districts nationwide face amid growing public support for policies prohibiting lunch-shaming. Such shaming often involves giving students who can’t pay small, alternative meals, putting stickers or stamps on them to remind their parents to pay, or even throwing out their meals.

In the last couple years, a growing number of districts nationwide have established policies to curb lunch-shaming. Some states, including New York, Iowa, and New Mexico, have passed statewide legislation with the same goals. The idea behind such measures is to free students from the burden of debt they have no power to pay and ensure they don’t go hungry at school. But with school districts obligated to pay for the meals, food service leaders are often left scrambling to cover mounting costs.

The school lunch debt is one reason Denver district officials quietly introduced snacks such as Doritos and Rice Krispies Treats in elementary school cafeteria lines late this past winter. The new additions, seen as unhealthy by some parents, helped generate around $41,000 in new revenue for the nutrition services department.

Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for the School Nutrition Association, said she hasn’t yet heard of another district with a debt increase the size of Denver’s following the introduction of a lunch-shaming prevention policy. But she said it’s an issue the group, which represents school food service employees, plans to watch closely.

“In many districts, allowing all kids to automatically get a free meal …. can turn into a real financial challenge for the program,” she said, noting that it can take away the incentive for parents to fill out the free and reduced-price meal application.

Nearly one-third of the district’s lunch debt last year came from families who were eligible for free or reduced-price meals, but signed up part-way into the school year, after their children had already received free school lunches. The federal government covers lunch costs for students eligible for free lunches and part of the cost for students who qualify for reduced-price lunches. For elementary school students in Colorado (and starting next year for middle-schoolers), the state covers the remaining cost of reduced-price lunches.

Another 68 percent of Denver families with unpaid meal debt don’t qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Still, district officials said it’s impossible to determine how many of those families would qualify for subsidized lunches if they applied, how many struggle financially but just miss the cut-off for eligibility, and how many can afford to pay for school lunches but choose not to.

Theresa Peña, regional coordinator for outreach and engagement in Denver’s nutrition services department, supports the district’s new lunch-shaming prevention policy, which ended the practice of giving students with lunch debt cheese sandwiches or graham crackers and milk.

Still, district officials didn’t expect the ballooning lunch debt, which at one point was projected to hit a half-million dollars, she said.

Peña said the district is stepping up efforts to get every family to fill out the free- and reduced-price meal application for next year — an extra challenge in the current political climate in which some immigrant families fear leaving a paper trail.

Last year, in addition to adding new revenue-generating snacks in elementary schools, the district tried to recoup the debt by making weekly robocalls to parents, working with principals to do outreach to families, and in some cases sending letters home with students.

“We made a pretty hard push,” Peña said. “It did make an impact, but not as great an impact as we had hoped.”

A national problem

Most districts nationwide accrue some debt for unpaid meals.

A 2016 survey by the School Nutrition Association found that three-quarters of school districts rack up unpaid meal debt, up slightly from 71 percent two years before.

In Denver, the amount of lunch debt ranges widely by school, with some accruing less than $50 and others accruing thousands. Omar D. Blair Charter School had the highest lunch debt among Denver schools last year at $11,500. Meanwhile, Florida Pitt Waller, Joe Shoemaker Elementary, Thomas Jefferson High School, and Cheltenham Elementary all reported lunch debts between $2,500 and $5,000.

At Shoemaker, where two-thirds of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, Kitchen Manager Chris Juarez said he believes much of the school’s $4,000 in lunch debt came from families who would have qualified for subsidized lunches but didn’t apply. Sometimes, he said, families don’t realize they have to re-submit their application each year; this fall, he plans to meet with returning families — in addition to new families — to emphasize that fact.

Other parents don’t realize they have to add to the form if a related child joins their household, he said. And language barriers may still be a problem, even though the form is available in many languages. In addition, some may worry that filling out the form means their immigration status can be tracked. A 2017 Denver school board resolution specified that the district does not collect or maintain any information on students’ immigration status.

Juarez suspects only a small percentage of Shoemaker families can afford to pay for their children’s lunches, but choose not to.

Shoemaker Principal Christine Fleming, said her top priority is making sure kids get to eat lunch, no matter what. She sees non-payment as a “parent issue,” and said, “I don’t want 5-, 6-, 7- year olds to carry that burden.”

Fleming said she’s always reserved some money in a special “principal’s account” to cover the cost of unpaid lunches, including in 2017–18, when she set aside a few hundred dollars.

Previously, that practice was common across the district, Peña said, but once the lunch-shaming policy took effect, “a lot of them said, ‘Zero out my principal account. I’m not going to do that anymore.’”

In 2016–17, when the district’s lunch debt was just $13,000, an online fundraising campaign and a contribution from a private donor covered the outstanding balance. But not this year.

A district grant of $100,000 paid off lunch debt from students who were eventually eligible for free or reduced-price lunch last school year but whose parents may not have signed up right away. Peña said the district has not finalized how the remaining $256,000 will be paid, and has until June 30 to make a decision.

Is it junk food?

Before this year, elementary schools in Denver sold some snacks — officially called a la carte items — in their cafeterias. These included turkey sticks, granola bars, popcorn, string cheese, and yogurt.

Peña said the district decided to add more a la carte items in February, a few months after district food service supervisors visited nearby districts, including Jeffco and Cherry Creek, and learned that “a la carte sales were a big deal” there.

The additions include more than a half-dozen kinds of chips, Rice Krispies Treats, gummy fruit snacks, and pistachios. All of the items — some of which are slightly reformulated versions of the same products sold on grocery store shelves — adhere to federal rules governing school snacks. Parents were not informed of the new snack offerings when they were introduced.

Susan Scovell, who has two children at Bradley International School in southeast Denver and works part-time as a personal chef, said of the new snacks, “It’s pretty much total junk food.”

She got wind of them when her second-grade daughter began mentioning that friends routinely bought Doritos and Cheetos at lunch time.

“It took me months to figure out this was going on,” she said. “Most parents really had no idea.”

Scovell said the new snacks stand in stark contrast to the district’s efforts to emphasize scratch cooking and other kinds of healthy eating initiatives, such as the week-long fruit- and vegetable-tasting event at Bradley this spring.

Peña, who said the district plans to communicate better about the snack options this coming year, said parents can prevent their children from buying certain snacks. To do so, they need to contact the school’s kitchen manager and request that a note be added to the student’s school meal account citing the restriction. She conceded that the process may not be obvious or easy for all parents, and said the department will look to address that.

Peña also said that principals or kitchen managers have the option to limit the sale of a la carte snacks at their schools. For example, they can choose not to sell certain items, or restrict the sale of a la carte items to the last 15 minutes of the lunch period or to certain days of the week.

Denver is hardly unique in offering a la carte snacks at elementary schools.

Other large Colorado districts, including Douglas County, Jeffco, and Cherry Creek, also offer such items to grade school students. All three districts allow parents to limit or block their children’s snack purchases.

Carol Muller, state director of Colorado Action for Healthy Kids, which promotes nutrition and exercise initiatives in schools, said one of the top concerns she hears from parents across Colorado is about a la carte snacks. At the same time, she understands the financial pressures school cafeterias are under.

“It’s a really tough issue for everyone involved, including us,” she said. “We certainly support food service staff. We don’t want to add a bigger burden to them, but on the other hand, as a parent, I don’t find all the snacks acceptable either.”

survey says

More bullying reported at New York City schools, study shows

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

More New York City students say there is bullying in their schools, a report released Monday showed. The findings also revealed that many schools reporting the greatest number of violent incidents on campus have no social workers on staff.

The report was commissioned by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

Stringer also released an audit of how school safety matters are recorded, and concluded that the education department should provide more oversight and streamline incident reporting rules.

“The audit found clear breakdowns in communication in the reporting and tracking of incidents and actions taken,” according to a press release from Stringer’s office.

The education department disputed some of the comptroller’s findings, and in a written statement, spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote: “We have detailed protocols in place to ensure allegations of bullying are immediately reported, investigated and addressed, and are investing in both anti-bullying initiatives and mental health supports.”

But the pair of reports raises scrutiny of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s school discipline reforms, which favor  “restorative” practices that emphasize mediation over punishment, and make it harder to suspend students.

Advocates of the de Blasio reforms say the shift is necessary because black and Hispanic students are more likely to be arrested or disciplined at school. Research has shown such disciplinary action can lead to higher dropout rates. Critics of the reforms, meanwhile, say the changes have created more chaotic schools.

The findings are also likely to add to a chorus of parents and elected officials who say more emotional supports are needed for the city’s most vulnerable students. Students who experience a mental health crisis during the school day may be handcuffed and shuttled to hospitals. The city’s latest budget, which was approved last week, includes an additional $2 million to hire social workers and guidance counselors in schools that currently don’t have any.

Here are some highlights from the reports.

More students report there is bullying in their schools — but the data comes with a catch.

Last year, the education department’s annual survey showed that 82 percent of students said their peers “harass, bully, or intimidate others in school.” That’s up year over year, and up significantly from 65 percent of students in 2012, which was the lowest rate recorded since at least 2010. (De Blasio’s discipline reforms started to take effect around 2015.)

A note about these numbers: Prior to 2017, the survey asked whether students harass, bully or intimidate other students none, some, most, or all of the time. The most recent survey responses were slightly different: none of the time, rarely, some of the time, or most of the time — a change that may have artificially inflated the bullying numbers.

That’s enough to render the survey data unreliable said Max Eden, a researcher who has studied school climate for the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute — a critic of the mayor’s discipline reforms. Still, taken with other findings, it’s reasonable to think that bullying is on the rise at city schools, he said.

Among the other evidence: A first-of-its-kind report, released this month under a new city law, that showed substantiated bullying incidents are on track to increase this year.

Schools that log the most violent incidents often lack mental health supports.

Guidance counselors and social workers are key when it comes to creating safe schools because they can help address the root cause of violent or troublesome behavior, advocates who want more mental health supports say.

But many of the city’s neediest schools go without that help.

Of the schools reporting the most violent incidents on campus, 36 percent lack a full-time social worker, the comptroller found. On campuses where there are social workers, caseloads are a staggering 700 to one. That far exceeds the recommended ratio from the National Association of Social Workers of 250 general education students per social worker — and it’s higher than the citywide average of 612 students per social worker, according to the comptroller.

The comptroller’ compares that to the ratio of New York Police Department school safety agents who are placed in schools: There is one safety agent per 228 students, according to the report.

“Our city is failing to meet the social and emotional needs of our students,” Councilman Mark Treyger, of Brooklyn, who has pushed the city to report more up-to-date bullying data and to hire more school counselors, said in an emailed statement.

Schools may be underreporting violent incidents, something the education department disputes.

In a separate audit, the comptroller compared logs kept by school safety agents to incident reports filed by school leaders. In 21 percent of cases, incidents that were noted by safety agents were not reflected in the school reports.

The school data, in turn, are used to report incidents to the state for its Violent and Disruptive Incident Report, or VADIR. The discrepancy could raise questions about the already-controversial reporting system. (VADIR has been criticized for classifying schoolyard incidents as serious offenses, and the state has tweaked its definitions in response to those kinds of concerns.)

This finding also comes with some caveats. The comptroller looked at only 10 schools — a tiny sample of the city’s portfolio of about 1,800. And the education department took issue with the methodology.

In its response to the audit, education department officials said that the police data doesn’t align with the state’s reporting categories, and that the information may not be comparable because of student privacy concerns and recordkeeping issues on campuses where multiple schools share a building.