Rick Hughes: Good food guru

Rick Hughes revamped Colorado Springs’ meals program by defining what was good food.

Accomplishments

Rick Hughes has revolutionized the foodservice department at Colorado Springs School District 11 by:

  • Launching the Good Food Project, which sets standards for the foods that can be served in schools. Menu items are no longer highly processed, have additives or added sugars
  • Hiring an executive chef to teach the staff to cook most food from scratch
  • Altering how food is cooked by turning four kitchens into processing hubs that focus on a specific food type like baked goods
  • Focusing on sustainability by purchasing $750,000 in local products last year and by starting a school greenhouse/garden concept

You’ll likely hear the words “good food” several times in a conversation with Rick Hughes, director of food and nutrition services for 30,000-student Colorado Springs School District 11. Good food has become a mantra for what the district serves, so much so that Hughes named the district’s revamped program the Good Food Project and uses the words to define everything the department does, from sourcing to service.

“I started working in fine dining in a lobster restaurant on the waterfront in Tacoma, Wash., and since then I’ve had a passion for serving good food,” Hughes says. From restaurants Hughes went to work for Marriott Management Services, which later became Sodexo. He joined District 11 as foodservice director with Marriott in 1997.

In 2006, the district’s CFO, Glenn Gustafson, approached Hughes about bringing the foodservice department in house. “We knew he was the leader we wanted and had the vision to go where we wanted to go,” Gustafson says of Hughes.

Gustafson wanted the district to operate its own foodservice in order to have more control over the menus and to be able to better address the growing obesity crisis.

“We wanted to change our foodservice program to educate kids about healthy diet and exercise so we could reverse the trend [of obesity],” he says. “I’m an accountant. Rick is the brains behind the operation. The measure for me as his boss is that I’m afraid if I meddle in his business I’ll mess it up. He’s that good.”

Good Food Project: Hughes says it was tough to leave Sodexo after 14 years, but he “knew in my heart that I could do bigger and better things for the kids. [Going in house] aligned well with wanting to go back to healthier foods and scratch cooking, to be able to implement a new system that did the best things for kids, which was to serve them fresh, healthy foods from sustainable sources,” Hughes says.

Going self-op enabled Hughes and company to develop the Good Food Project, which set new standards for foods that are served.

The district had been serving stereotypical, highly processed school lunch items like pizza, chicken nuggets and nachos made with “glowing yellow cheese sauce,” Hughes says. “They were cheaply produced, so they didn’t cost a lot to purchase. It was very easy to make money, but that’s not what we’re here for.”

With the Good Food Project, the foodservice team developed a set of standards that defined what healthy food was. Those standards include: no growth hormones, antibiotics, added sugars, trans fats, artificial preservatives or dyes; whole or natural foods that are environmentally friendly with minimal packaging; and whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables.

To create the Good Food menu, a team of dietetic interns scoured the menu assigning a good, bad or ugly rating to every food. The good items stayed; ugly items were dropped immediately; and bad foods were slowly phased out in favor of better-for-you options.

Hughes knew making too drastic a change quickly would alienate students and staff alike. So the menu cleansing process took almost five years. Even so, there initially was a 6% decline in participation, which has since been reversed.

Kitchen help: By bringing in whole foods and eliminating processed items, the foodservice department committed to cooking from scratch. To help with the transition, Hughes created an executive chef position, which is currently occupied by Brian Axworthy, who says he joined the district because of the Good Food Project. Both Hughes and Axworthy say that because of the project’s strict nutritional standards, District 11 was well ahead of the new meal regulations specified under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

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