School lunch. Just the thought of mystery meat is enough to make some people cringe.
But in Greeley-Evans School District 6, they are changing the menu and perhaps, raising the bar. Some say the lunches are not only edible, but restaurant-quality good. And they are healthy, too.
“Before we began this journey, less than 20 percent of our foods were prepared from scratch,” said nutrition services director for the district, Jeremy West.
That was four years ago when new U.S. Department of Agriculture standards took effect requiring districts to serve healthier options. Since then, West said it has been his mission to change the menu.
Greeley now serves mostly fresh-out-of-the-field red potatoes, green chili, beans and other produce from local farmers. In fact, of the $4.2 million the district spends on school lunches, breakfasts and snacks each year, nearly 25 percent goes to purchase local produce, meats, grains and dairy.
“This is kind of veggie world, food-hub area," executive chef, Matt Poling said as he showed us the newly renovated central production kitchen. It’s a kitchen that was largely dormant four years ago with a freezer full of pre-packaged, highly processed meals ready to heat and eat.
“Now our freezer is practically empty,” said Poling. “We try not to freeze anything.”
For Poling, his meals might be for kids, but his job is hardly child's play.
“We're very passionate about what we do and the reason that we're doing it -- which is to feed the kids," said Poling.
"If a student is hungry or not well-nourished, they're not going to do well in school," said Rachel Hurshman, wellness coordinator for District 6.
Today, 75 percent of Greeley school lunches and breakfasts are made from scratch with produce from local farms, like the mashed potatoes - which are no longer instant.
"At first, our elementary kids wouldn’t touch the potatoes because they had no idea what the red skins were,” said West. “Now, it's one of our most popular days -- anytime there's potatoes on the menu."
And there's a standard for taste as well.
"We know it tastes good because if we're not willing to eat it, then the kids aren't going to eat it," said one of the food production workers.
They taste test everything. We did, too.
“Oh, that is good. Very good," said reporter 7NEWS reporter Russell Haythorn after taste-testing the made-from-scratch green chili. The district serves the green chili over burritos. It hand-rolls 9,000 burritos made-from-scratch with whole-grain tortillas on every burrito day.
The district’s new chili roaster is the kitchen staff’s pride and joy. It just went into service last month.
“This thing is great,” said West. “We roast fresh chilis.”
On Wednesday, in the lunch room at Dos Rios Elementary, kids had the option of PB&J or lasagna made from scratch.
Most chose the lasagna.
They also have a salad bar every day with options like bananas, sliced oranges, baby carrots and sliced apples.
And Greeley is starting to get national attention.
"It's amazing. This is what my goal is in my district," said Dan Flick. Flick is the food service coordinator with Parkway School District in Chesterfield, Missouri. He happened to be touring Greeley’s central production kitchen while our 7NEWS crew was touring the facility.
"You want the kids to eat well and eat good and eat healthily. Well, if we're opening a box and we're throwing it on a tray, we're not doing that. There’s enough preservatives and chemicals and everything else in there, that –- we don’t even know what it does to you,” Flick said.
Poling said he’s able to use spices and fresh ingredients instead of salt and fat for taste.
“That’s probably the most challenging part of my job,” he said. “Making it taste good for the kids.”
“We can have the healthiest food in America, but if kids aren’t going to take it and consume it, what have we really accomplished?” said West.
Greeley has a very high free and reduced lunch student population.
“And so we want to get as much bang for the buck as we can and get those nutrients into the kids since they may or may not be getting dinner, or certainly not always a nutritious dinner at home,” said Hurshman. “We wanted to do a better job offering the best possible food, nutritionally.”
And West added, this new ‘focus on fresh’ is not cost-prohibitive.
“We spend about the same amount,” said West. “Cost-wise, we are able to stay within the same budget as we were when we started the program.”