USDA official gets taste of Roaring Fork High School | PostIndependent.com

USDA official gets taste of Roaring Fork High School

CARBONDALE — Janey Thornton, an undersecretary in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, had a lot to be impressed with when she visited Roaring Fork High School on Wednesday.

Thornton's stop in Carbondale allowed her, as well as representatives from the Colorado Department of Education and Colorado USDA office, to see what USDA regulations mean to students and faculty on the ground. Michelle Hammond, Roaring Fork School District food service director, joined the tour, as did district Superintendent Diana Sirko, assistant Superintendent Shannon Pelland, and Roaring Fork High School Principal Drew Adams.

The first item on the agenda was a tour of the school's grow dome, a 1,300 square-foot greenhouse that supports a robust agriculture and biology program through the winter.

Teacher Hadley Hentschel started the program in 2009 to teach students biological principles while they managed a half-acre garden. The addition of the dome the next year allowed production to expand from local Red McClure potatoes and tomatoes to year-round herbs and exotic plants. So far, the school has harvested more than a ton of produce from the greenhouse and garden.

"We want to grow nutritious food, whether all of it makes it to the cafeteria or kids just munch on it as they're walking to class," Hentschel said. "So many kids are so disconnected from food production. We've got to find ways for kids to experience food from the ground up."

Thornton, whose full title is undersecretary for USDA Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, agreed.

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"Every place I go, I hear that when kids are involved with growing fruits and vegetables, they're much more likely to eat them," she said.

Although she said she's seen greenhouses and agricultural programs gaining popularity around the country, she considered Roaring Fork's program particularly strong.

"We're seeing bits and pieces, but I've never seen one this organized," she said. "It's very, very impressive."

Thornton applauded Hentschel on the school's composting program, and suggested grant opportunities that might help expand composting beyond vegetative waste.

After a quick tour of the kitchen, the group merged into line with the high schoolers to sample the school's lunch offering. A little more than 100 kids — roughly a third of the school's students — take advantage of the school's lunch program, while the remainder eat off campus. It's a competitive $4 for a regular high schooler, and the majority of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, as do around 21 million of the 32 million kids eating school lunch nationwide.

Thursday's offering was orange chicken over rice pilaf with green beans and a small vegetable and fruit bar.

According to some of the students, it was a better spread than usual. A group of junior and sophomore girls told the group that lunch had gone downhill since last year, when the salad bar was more robust and more meals were made from scratch.

Although the extra salad bar allowed free and reduced lunch students to get a the fully balanced meal, with some source of protein and at least a half a cup of fruits and vegetables, even if they didn't like the hot lunch offering, food service director Hammond said it proved financially impractical with rising food costs and fixed lunch rates.

As for more foods from scratch, many districts are struggling to compensate as some recipes are eliminated due to tougher USDA standards for sodium levels, fat content and overall calories.

Thornton assured Hammond that new resources and recipes were on the way to ease that difficulty, and encouraged her to consult with local chefs to modify old recipes and create new ones.

She defended the standards as necessary.

"We need to educate kids today to understand, if they're going to grow up to be healthy, productive citizens, they've got to take care of their bodies," she said.

It's the opposite problem from when school lunch started, said Thornton, who will participate in seminars in Aspen later in the week. At the outset of the lunch program, the concern was malnutrition. Now it's obesity.

"It's really a societal issue," she said, but asserted that schools are the best place to try to fix it. Based on her brief visit, she thinks Roaring Fork is on track.

"You have real support from the superintendent down," she said. "There is a real commitment to do what's right for the kids."

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