by Jamie Siebrase
Remember when the cafeteria
smelled like old hot dogs and the lunch lady – hair tousled in ubiquitous
black net – slapped heaping ecru piles of turkey surprise on your tray?
DENVER PUBLIC SCHOOLS STUDENTS WILL STILL ENJOY THEIR FAVORITE COMFORT FOODS in the school cafeteria, but more healthful ingredients and “from scratch” preparation will provide more satisfactory fuel for their growing bodies.
organizations, along with Denver Public Schools (DPS) and devoted parents, know
our kids deserve better.
In 2001, a grassroots group of
revolutionaries – parents and activists who believed education should
incorporate healthy eating – planted a few modest gardens in four DPS
schools. This Seed-to-Table program, managed by parent organization Slow Food
Denver, has flourished. Today, there are over 50 school gardens in several
districts. A second classroom, these gardens offer hands-on learning
opportunities incorporating lessons in problem solving, teamwork, and
“Until recently, misconceptions about what
was allowable by the health department meant students couldn’t eat food they
grew,” explains Andy Nowak, Seed-to-Table leader and Steele Elementary parent.
In order to make garden food consumable, Slow Food Denver worked with Denver’s
Department of Environmental Health to establish protocols that permit students
to safely gather produce. Enter the Garden to Cafeteria (GTC) program.
Now in its third year of operation, GTC lets
students harvest their crop and sell it to the cafeteria at wholesale prices.
DPS serves approximately 1,200-1,500 pounds of student-grown produce annually.
“The kids recognize homegrown vegetables in salad bars,” says Nowak. Most
eagerly devour their produce.
School gardens are self-sufficient because
profits derived from programs like GTC are immediately reinvested. Youth
Farmers Markets are another opportunity for students to sustain their gardens.
Market participants open stands on school grounds,
selling their produce to parents and neighbors.
“In this capacity, the gardens are a vehicle
for educating students about business,” explains Nowak. Students learn about
seasonality, locality, and marketing while sharpening mathematical and
interpersonal skills. The markets have grown exponentially; last year alone,
the program produced 141 markets in 32 schools and grossed nearly $9,000.
Increased popularity has resulted in supplementation of school-grown produce.
“We can’t grow everything,” Nowak says, “So we buy bigger crops from local
farmers.” Denver Urban Gardens (DUG) assists the budding farmers by sharing its
“School gardens, run entirely by volunteers,
demonstrate how a community can rally together and change a whole culture,”
says Nowak, who encourages those interested in volunteering to get in touch
with current volunteers at their son or daughter’s (or grandchild’s) school
garden. You can also email
or call 303-321-3322.
Seed-to-Table’s success has motivated DPS to
make its own changes. In 2010, former DPS Executive Director of
Nutrition Leo Lesh initiated a scratch cooking program designed to bring
concepts of student preference, science-based nutrition, skilled labor,
on-site preparation into school cafés. The program consists of summer
camps.” During the debut boot camp, 40 managers underwent training in
culinary techniques. Staff members were then trained intermittently
DPS schools completed the program.
Thanks to this program, a majority of DPS’s
lunch food is now made from scratch. “The idea is to get back to actually
cooking in our kitchens,” says area supervisor Adam Fisher, whose primary
objective involves moving away from times when processed, packaged substance
Each morning, DPS children are greeted by
aromas of fresh muffins rising in the oven or onions sautéing with ground beef
sourced from a local farm. DPS’s menu is beginning to read like menus at Fruition,
Steuben’s, and Devil’s Food. Chicken gumbo, vegetarian lasagna, and shepherd’s
pie are a few new options.
When designing the menu, DPS strives to
preserve familiarity while gradually introducing new concepts. Children
eat meatloaf, mac and cheese, and pizza. But these kid-friendly dishes
gotten a makeover. Cafeteria chefs make the meatloaf and macaroni cheese
from scratch. The pizza crust is a homemade 50 percent whole wheat
drizzled with fresh sauce and low-fat, low-sodium cheese purchased from
Leprino Foods, a Colorado company with mom and pop roots.
“DPS buys local and regional whenever
possible,” beams area supervisor Beth Schwisow. This
supports the state’s economy while eliminating excess shipping waste. According
to Schwisow, DPS also buys organic when
Recently, the district began converting
unused DPS-owned property into urban farmland as a means of placing more fresh
produce in schools. At Denver Green School (DGS), 6700 E. Virginia Ave., a
voluptuous corner of land, originally covered in sod, was converted into a
vegetable patch after DGS discovered produce thriving on drip irrigation
required less water than sod. With this realization, the first school farm was
Today, DPS boasts three farms. Agriburbia (agriburbia.com)
manages those at Bradley International, 3051 S. Elm St., and McGlone Elementary in northeast Denver, while the
hyper-local Sprout City Farms (sproutcityfarms.org)
runs DGS’s plot. All of the farms are expected to be in full production in the
upcoming school year, contributing to the GTC program as well as offering
produce shares through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model.
Sending your kids to school without a sack
lunch is an easy way to support DPS’s efforts. “You can’t make a lunch for what
we charge,” says Schwisow. Prices start at $1.45 for
elementary children, and breakfast is always free. Your kiddos will love the
cinnamon rolls; they’ll never know they’re made with applesauce instead of
To a food snob like myself who has always
been incredibly anxious around school cafeterias, school gardens, school farms,
and scratch cooking are welcome (not to mention exciting) changes that I hope
continue well into the years my sons start school. Parents, grandparents, and
neighbors: grab a trowel and a pair of gloves, stop by one of the Youth Farmers
Markets on your way home, put that Spiderman lunchbox in storage. Do whatever
you can to support the fabulous programs that make healthy eating and
lifestyles a priority for our lucky DPS kiddos.
(Editor’s note: For details on school
gardens and DUG’s contributions and educational options, visit dug.org, and click on “Youth Education,” or
call 303-292-9900. Check the DUG website in late August for a complete Youth
Farmers Market schedule.)