School meals programming trying to take steps forward while staying afloat
Octavio Maese has a vision for school lunches.
He runs through creative ideas like a food truck with alternative options and theme days — like Colorado Proud day, which sourced all its ingredients from within the state’s borders.
It all centers around one theme: getting food into students’ stomachs and keeping it out of dumpsters.
“It’s hard to see food thrown away,” Maese said.
The Roaring Fork School District’s Director of Nutrition Services took the reins in August 2020. In his department, growing labor and supply chain shortages coupled with higher demand from free meals programming have put some of his plans on the back burner.
The nutrition services department is simultaneously playing whack-a-mole with what food options they’ll be able to serve on a given week, while navigating the choppy waters of labor availability, ensuring they’re providing meals that meet all requirements for funding reimbursement and putting out a product that picky children will eat.
What’s on the menu?
Early on, the belief was that some products, like chicken, would continually be in short supply during the school year. Now, Maese said, the shortages have manifested in one-off events for items like chicken drumsticks, pancake-wrapped sausages and corn dogs.
Increased product scarcity has led to more expensive ingredients and service tools. The cost of milk increased 4 cents per unit since last year, an increase of around $140 per day district wide, which Maese said isn’t the type of “dramatic increase” seen across other ingredients and items like utensils, trays and gloves.
Unstable levels of ingredient availability, cost and the labor to process raw ingredients lead to reduced offerings. Kitchens are relying on pre-built meals because they don’t have the workforce to prepare unique meals.
They’re also having to produce more meals because of the free meal program instituted by the federal government during the pandemic. Across the district, student participation in lunch is up 15-20% from 2019-20, when free meals weren’t available to all students. Breakfast service is up 7% from that year.
Glenwood Springs High School serves up to 10% of its student population on a daily basis due to its open campus and proximity to restaurants, but Glenwood Springs Elementary is serving virtually its entire population with 320 meals a day, Maese said.
Behind the sneeze guard
Soledad Montes has worked in food services at GSHS for 12 years.
“I like working with food and I like working with kids,” Montes said through the interpretation of fellow cook Karla Trejo.
She’s one of the workers that has helped alleviate the strain on Maese, whose roster still has four vacancies more than a quarter into the school year.
Nutrition services started the year with six vacancies in 36 positions, got as high as 34 employees and then saw two employees leave.
Higher cost of living, increased risk of COVID-19 exposure and higher gas prices have led to cooks leaving the ranks of Roaring Fork School District.
If workers call in sick, Maese has to shuffle workers across the valley and take to the kitchen himself to compensate. An optimist, he says he has no complaints, but it is taking time from his administrative duties and laying the groundwork for his vision for the department.
Eat your vegetables
Maese’s dream is to provide diverse organic, from-scratch meals that grab the attention of students and entice them into not just begrudgingly taking whatever the cafeteria is providing, but enjoying it as well.
“Most days it’s pretty good,” GSHS freshman Bryce Watson said in between bites of that day’s lunch item: pizza. “It’s edible.”
Because the U.S. Department of Agriculture is funding the free meals program, the nutrition services department has to follow federal guidelines. It has to provide students with trays with a fruit and vegetable option to be eligible for reimbursement — including items Maese knows the kids won’t eat.
It’s a constant dance between meeting regulations, providing nutritional meals and putting something on the tray that will end up in stomachs, one that the cooks take pride in.
“I put all the effort I can into making it the best and as presentable as I can,” Trejo said. “You try to make it as best you can, giving all you have for the kids to be happy with the food, to kind of meet in the middle of what we can make and what they like.”
Even free of charge, some students still look elsewhere for their lunches. At GSHS, City Market and Za Pizza are alternate options that many take advantage of.
The school cafeteria is in direct competition with local businesses.
“It’s kind of sad, really,” Maese said.
Maese has noticed that some brown City Market bags end up on cafeteria tables next to his trays, unopened with the more well-received meals. He sees it as just more fuel to the fire of building his program.
His task is not only finding ways to make recipes that students will like, but getting the message to them, as well.
Even with Colorado Proud day, he said the most receptive customers were adults. His bison tacos with locally-made tortillas and produce from Paonia struck a chord with the staff of buildings, but missed the mark with the students, Maese said.
“It’s on track,” Maese said. “Ultimately, it’s just a matter of having enough time to implement those ideas.”
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No more than 20 minutes after Kathryn Kuhlenberg was sworn in as an official member of the Roaring Fork School District Board of Education she was unanimously named its president.