Taking stock of local school kitchens

Livewell Colorado assessment part of push for more scratch cooking

JoDee Powers, coordinator for Livewell Montezuma, stopped by the Montezuma-Cortez School District Re-1 board meeting this week to deliver some exciting news. The district will get a school meal assessment from Livewell Colorado experts, probably in September, to see how more fresh foods can be integrated into the lunch program.

"This is something we pursued on behalf of the district, mainly because it complements the different programs already in place," Powers said.

In terms of size, the selection of Cortez represents a shift. The previous eight assessments have taken place mostly in larger, urban districts because Livewell Colorado wants to reach as many students as possible. Re-1 is the first rural district with a student population of under 5,000 to be chosen.

Livewell Montezuma had been requesting an assessment for some time.

"I guess they finally heard the clarion call," Powers told the board.

The school district, and wider Cortez community, have already made strides infusing healthy, local food over the last few years. Cooking Matters is a six-week class that teaches all ages - but mostly teenagers - about food preparation and nutrition. The Farm-to-School program brings local fruit, vegetables and beef into the cafeterias. Montezuma School to Farm works in the opposite direction, taking students on field trips to farms and ranches; it also has helped to nurture budding school gardens in Mancos and Dolores.

Talks are ongoing for a garden at Cortez Middle School. Powers said adolescents are the age group most receptive to changing dietary habits.

"The older they get, the harder they fall," she said, referring to the difficulty of giving up processed food later in life. "With the (younger ones), by the second year they want to make their own kale pesto and kale chips!"

These prior initiatives worked in the district's favor, Powers added, because Livewell Colorado saw that Cortez was latching on to the local food movement.

She credited Re-1 food service director Sandi Vanhoutean for her enthusiasm and previous reform efforts. Too often, she said, school districts are stuck in the ways of the past and hampered by constraints of the industrial food system, where cost and convenience are prized at the expense of freshness.

"We've been sold this whole notion about how frozen food is convenient and (financially) necessary. It's true, heating up frozen food does cut labor costs," Powers said. "But now we're seeing the price we pay on the health side."

For her part, Vanhoutean didn't know too many details about the assessment, but was ready to get started.

"It's the unknown, but it's exciting," she said.

Changes won't happen overnight. After the Livewell consultants tour the cafeterias this fall and condense their findings into a report, they'll collaborate with Vanhoutean and her staff over a year and a half period to hash out what the district's goals are. Then, they'll help write a grant proposal to the Colorado Health Foundation for up to $400,000 to make those goals happen.

"Nobody is waving a magic wand. It'll take work and time. This is a two-year process by the time all is said and done," Powers said.

lukeg@cortezjournal.com