A Healthy Transformation

Colorado district fights against processed foods.

FoodService Director - Montrose County School DistrictMONTROSE, Colo.—A healthy transformation is happening at 6,700-student Montrose County School District. For the past two years, the foodservice department, under the guidance of Nutrition Services Director Kathy DelTonto, has been making changes to ensure the meals students receive are as nutritious as possible.

“One of our goals is to use only 10% of total foods that are processed,” DelTonto said. “We’ve made a pretty big dent in eliminating processed foods.”

DelTonto said the healthy transformation began after the district partnered with the Colorado Health Foundation and the Rocky Mountain Children’s Health Foundation. The two groups do assessments of Colorado school districts to give suggestions on how the districts can help their students lead healthier lives. The groups assessed Montrose’s nutrition services department in March 2009.

“They talked with community members, parents and members of the district,” DelTonto said. “We put in a grant to have them assess our nutrition services department. At the first meeting we talked about how nationally, with the school lunch program, the pendulum was swinging toward eliminating processed foods.”

FoodService Director - Montrose County School DistrictDelTonto said the department had already made some changes, such as reducing the amount of products that contain high-fructose corn syrup, but the organizations and DelTonto felt other changes could be made to make the district’s offerings healthier.

The first step was eliminating chocolate milk. “The move was met with a little bit of resistance, but I think it took them a few months to get used to it,” she said. “We were only serving chocolate milk once a week. At first we saw the number of kids who took milk drop a little bit, but it’s back up. Now we offer skim and 1%.”

Processed foods “hit list:” Processed foods were the next step. DelTonto said the department created a processed foods “hit list,” which contained the list of the top five menu products that were highly processed. The list contained a corn dog, a hot dog, a canned ravioli, chicken fried steak and a barbecued pork rib. To replace the items on the list, DelTonto said she began using her commodity dollars in a more efficient manner, like purchasing whole pork roasts to make a pulled pork sandwich, which replaced the barbecued pork rib.

“Before, I was using our commodity money to buy processed foods. I didn’t process anything for next year. We make purchases a year in advance. We’re getting raw hamburgers, beef patties, turkey roasts and pork roasts. We do have some processed food items that we are trying to process out. Once those are gone, we don’t plan on replacing them. For chicken nuggets and tenders, we will purchase those in a raw state so we can control the ingredients and get back to more simple stuff. We have recipes for homemade Asian and barbecue sauces for the chicken.”

FoodService Director - Montrose County School DistrictOther items from the list have also been replaced. The chicken fried steak was replaced with meatloaf that is made in house from raw hamburger. The hot dog and corn dog have not been replaced, but DelTonto said the students haven’t minded the elimination of those items because those items were only menued once every six weeks.

DelTonto said the department wanted to make as many items from scratch as possible, but that move was difficult because of labor issues. “About four years ago, we went from a starting wage of $7.39 to $9.01, and that was because we are a school district that has a union. They raised our starting wage and unfortunately we had to cut our labor staff and go to more processed foods.”

DelTonto said at first she looked at ways she could make more items from scratch without adding labor hours. One of those things was baking bread in house instead of purchasing a frozen product. “We took a year implementing things that we could do with the current staff that we had and not adding any more hours.”

Another change was making pizza in house instead of purchasing a highly processed frozen pizza.

Back to basics: The department then started making its own sauces, salad dressings and gravies from scratch instead of using a packaged mix. “I’ve been with the foodservice department for 28 years,” DelTonto said. “We’re going back to what we used to do. We’re pulling out the recipes we had from back then. It’s interesting to see that the pendulum has swung back.”

DelTonto said the district’s parents were the ones leading the rallying cry for eliminating processed foods. “Our parents were instrumental in  saying we have too much processed food on our menus, so we took a look at it,” she said. “I think at first, to be honest, I felt defensive because I knew how much our staff was dedicated to their jobs and enjoy what we do. We are here for the kids, but we really looked at what we were feeding them. It’s not that everything was a bad product, it’s what can we serve that’s healthy and better.”

Even though the parents were on board with the changes, DelTonto said it has been a struggle with some students and families, especially when it come to chicken nuggets.  “The kids still want chicken nuggets,” she said. “It’s about educating them and their parents. We have a lot of students who came from households that never really learned to cook. They come from the drive-thru generation.”

DelTonto said the department is getting involved with students and their families through after-school programs. The district is sponsoring cooking lessons that teach families how to create a food budget, how to get the most for their money and showing parents what the department offers. The department also has partnered with the district’s physical education department to host a sit-down dinner for families with a walk after the meal.

Training: DelTonto said it was essential to train her staff to be able to make all the changes. After the initial assessment, the foodservice staff attended a culinary boot camp run by Live Well Colorado, a group that aims to create healthier lifestyles for Colorado residents.

This summer kitchen managers attended a weeklong culinary training camp through Live Well Colorado. The managers then gave a two-day boot camp for all employees where they learned things like knife skills, how to tear down a salad bar and roasting techniques.

Production also has changed. The district has nine kitchens; one kitchen is a satellite for three schools. “We were used to looking at production a day at a time,” DelTonto said. “Now, we are looking at a week at a time. We may be making sauce today that will be used next week.”

New equipment also was purchased through a $110,000 grant form the Colorado Health Foundation. “We had one school that was cooking on a little four-burner stove,” she said. “With the grant, it was enough money to buy a tilt skillet, and some schools needed refrigerators and freezers. We even got chef knives and smallware things that we hadn’t had in our budgets to purchase. It will make things more efficient.”

DelTonto said she eventually had to add 12 hours of labor to be able to produce items from scratch. “It was really restructuring our schedule and not having everybody come in at the same time. We also float staff from one school to another where before they were
assigned to a school. If one school has a light day we will send a cook or two to another school to get some bread production done.”

DelTonto also is purchasing more local products. She is currently working with some of the local farms to help them get a food safety plan in place so that the farms can become a vendor for the district.