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Rick Hughes: Good food guru

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

At a Glance

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.

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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