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

Axworthy has held several culinary boot camps—five days of intensive training—to teach staff how to prepare meals under the Good Food Project’s guidelines. Axworthy estimates that 90% of the district’s menu is now prepared from scratch.

“The journey we’ve been on has taken five years,” Hughes says of the project. “Has it been difficult and challenging and required us to be uncomfortable and think differently? Absolutely. Is it the right thing to do? No doubt. It not only helps us jump easily into the new regs but also the quality of food is so much better than it used to be.”

Since starting the Good Food Project, Hughes says foodservice costs haven’t increased. “We’ve been able to shift our costs between food, labor and other supplies,” he says. “It’s looking at the budget from a 30,000-foot view and saying, ‘We can do more here and less here.’”

District 11 joined a national group purchasing organization, which helps it purchase items at a lower price. The department also started a new production system. Food for the district’s serving sites was being produced in one of five base kitchens. Each base kitchen made a little bit of everything, which wasn’t efficient, Hughes says. Last year the district created four specialized production centers: a bakery, a cold prep kitchen and two entrée locations.

This summer, with grant money from the Colorado Health Foundation, Hughes purchased four large refrigerated trucks to transport food from the four production centers to the individual schools. The department also contracts its services, providing meals for two private schools, five charter schools and a few local nonprofits.

Local sourcing: One of the components of the Good Food Project is purchasing food from sources that are environmentally friendly. Last year the department purchased $750,000 in local products, including beef, coffee and peaches.

“We met with Palisade Peach Co., an organic peach orchard,” Hughes recalls. “We were standing in the orchard talking to the [farmers] about how they grow their peaches. It’s a neat thing when the server can make contact with the grower and talk to them about how they water and how they fertilize.”

Hughes admits purchasing locally sourced items can be difficult with regard to food safety and HACCP. To ease some of that burden, the team created a food safety inspection standard. “We don’t want to be unreasonable and say [a grower] can’t sell to us just because they are a small operation and they can’t afford what it takes to get certified by GAP (Good Agricultural Practices). Chef Brian and our team created a process to be able to allow us to go into a field or farm and have discussions with the grower so that we feel better about the food that we’re buying.”

In another local endeavor, last year the department helped develop, and now runs, a 42-foot geodesic dome greenhouse at the Galileo School of Math and Science. Lettuce, herbs, tomatoes and squash are grown in the greenhouse and used in the school’s cafeteria. The garden was originally planted and maintained through a partnership with Pikes Peak Urban Gardens, but it is now tended by Hughes’ staff and community volunteers.

Hughes hopes to find additional funding to expand the project to include 120 8-by-4-foot beds. “We want [the project] to be self-sustaining, to provide food for the district and to be able to involve kids in the growing and learning of where food comes from,” Hughes says.

Hughes says the journey to serving good food has had its ups and downs, but he believes it’s a replicable model. “I feel so good about telling parents what we’re doing,” he says. “Any school district can do this—high free and reduced, low free and reduced, big or small. It’s truly the best thing to do for kids.

“We’re not making loads of money any more, but we’re able to serve really good food,” he adds. “Our mission isn’t to make money. When children’s health and better quality food is your new bottom line, you change everything else to make it work. Blow the whole [system] up if you have to. Think differently.”

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