The Other 60 Percent

Tasty news: DPS back to scratch cooking

A tray of homemade cinnamon rolls was one of the class projects in the DPS scratch cooking boot camp.

Chef Safa Hamze watched with consternation as a Denver Public Schools food service worker squeezed a wad of whole wheat dough in her fists, then pinched off the tops that oozed out between her thumb and forefinger, setting each tan globule on a scale to make sure it weighed the requisite 1.5 ounces.

One by one, the little dough balls filled up a baking sheet, eventually to become dinner rolls. Soon, they would go in the oven at Academia Ana Marie Sandoval in northwest Denver.

“Do the dinner rolls have to be round?” he asked. “Because, you know, you can do it a lot faster if you make them square.”

Then Hamze, a one-time middle school math teacher who is now head baker at Whole Foods Rocky Mountain Bake House, did a little calculation aloud.

“You put 70 rolls on a pan at 1.5 ounces each. But instead, you could just roll out 7.5 pounds of dough and put on the pan, then slice it in squares and make the rolls pull-aparts,” he said. “They’ll bake together in such a way that you can just pull a roll off.”

Around the kitchen, heads nodded as mental light bulbs went on. The others could immediately see how much faster Hamze’s way would be over the traditional method, dubbed the “kill-the-chicken” technique.

Later that morning, Annette Martinez, who has been cooking for Denver schoolchildren for the past 23 years, was ecstatic with this newfound knowledge.

“Oh, slicing is soooo much better than pinching,” said Martinez, a food service worker at South High School. “He’s teaching us some real time savers. And that leaves us more time to focus on what we need to do.”

Back to school early for food workers

Last week, 120 workers – about a third of total DPS lunchroom staff – started a three-week “boot camp” in which they’ll learn lots more tips and techniques about scratch cooking, a skill many of them have never developed.

Safa Hamze, head baker at Whole Foods Rocky Mountain Bakehouse, shares some tips on time-saving ways to prepare cinnamon rolls.

They’re being tutored by local professional chefs such as Hamza.

When school starts in August, 29 DPS kitchens will have abandoned most processed foods and will be regularly be turning out homemade baked goods, meats and vegetable dishes. Within three years, all DPS school lunchrooms will follow suit.

It’s the largest commitment to returning to scratch cooking in schools in the state, if not the country, said Leo Lesh, director of food and nutrition services for the district.

“I think we’re ahead of the pack,” Lesh said.

“A few districts may try this in one or two schools, but we’re taking off a pretty big chunk at one go. And I’ve not heard of  anyone having a three-week training program like this.”

Back-to-scratch a national trend

The DPS effort parallels efforts in many smaller school districts to return to scratch cooking.

LiveWell Colorado is sponsoring week-long “culinary boot camps” for school food service personnel across the state. Nationwide, a movement for schools to abandon heat-and-serve processed foods and return to the homemade meals Baby Boomers remember is gathering steam.

“I’m surprised at how quickly this movement has taken root,” said Lesh. “It seems like overnight everyone has gotten concerned about the processed foods served in schools. Before, only food service directors were concerned.”

Most school lunchroom fare was made from scratch 30 years ago, he said. Then things changed.

“Food safety standards became more prevalent, and it was just easier to buy pre-packaged stuff,” he said. “The liability was less. And in the early ’80s everybody was running to fast food restaurants, and that’s what the kids wanted. We got into a lot of branded products like Subway pizza and Taco Bell burritos.”

Some new schools were built without real kitchens, since processed foods could simply be reheated. Of 140 DPS schools, 42 have no kitchens so food must be made elsewhere and transported to them.

Concern about childhood obesity sparks change

But about five years ago, things began to change again as rumblings of concern grew about widespread childhood obesity.

DPS responded by removing all its fryers, and began baking French fries. The district started bringing in more fresh fruits and vegetables, opening more salad bars.

Sandy Grady, area supervisor for DPS food and nutrition services, instructs students in creating homemade hamburger buns of the proper weight and shape.
PHOTO: Oliver Morrison
Sandy Grady, area supervisor for DPS Food and Nutrition Services, instructs boot camp students on how to make homemade hamburger buns of the proper weight and shape.

The district also embraced a policy of including at least one vegetarian selection daily, and of using produce from school gardens whenever possible.

“It was clear that we really wanted to go back to scratch cooking again,” Lesh said. “But then we faced the talent issue. Who could do those kind of things? People don’t cook at home anymore, and they haven’t taught their kids to cook. And there are no more home ec classes.

“We decided if we wanted to do this, we would have to develop our own training classes because we just can’t find the people who already have these skills who want to work for us.”

Back in the kitchen at Academia Ana Marie Sandoval, Katherine Culpepper is one of those people. She’s brand new to the district – doesn’t yet even know which school she’ll be assigned to in the fall.

But she’s the mother of six children and has raised seven more in addition to her own, and she knows a thing or two about cooking. “I know you can still have good quality food, made fast, if you work hard,” she said.

Martinez, the veteran with 23 years experience, remembers what school kitchens used to be like, and she’s glad to see a return to that.

“It’s back to the basic again, like we used to do,” she said. “It’ll be hard to go back to cooking again, but it’s good. It’s so much better for the children, and the food will be so much better.”

Regina Sams, who as been in the lunchroom at Denver’s Career Education Center for three years, said she used to work in a deli before getting hired by DPS. So she knows about scratch cooking.

“It’s more work but it’s better for the kids,” she said. “And DPS knows it will be more work, so they’re hiring more help. I don’t think there will be many complaints about it.”

Higher price tag for almost-home cooking

But that part about hiring more help does worry Lesh, whose job it is to make sure DPS meals are not only healthful but cost-efficient.

“I get $2.68 per child,” he said. Out of that, he pays salaries and benefits and covers utilities and equipment. The cost of the food itself accounts for less than half the costs associated with running the DPS food service program.

“It depends on the meal but we generally keep it around 42%. Roughly, our food costs are $1.12, on the high side, and we try to keep it around 90 cents,” Lesh said. “But I have to offer milk to every child and that’s 20 cents right there. So it’s a challenging business to try and make the meals for that amount of money.”

Lesh cautioned that the coming school year will be a transition year, and that not everything will be made from scratch.

“We won’t be taking feathers off of chickens,” he said. “We won’t make our own tortillas. This year will just let us know what’s possible, given the fact that it’s still a school lunch program, and we still have only 25 minutes to serve 300 kids. What CAN we get done, and more importantly, will the kids react positively?

“We think parents will,” Lesh added, “but parents aren’t in the lunchroom eating lunch every day. The kids have to like the food to bring them back every day for 173 days. I don’t know of anybody who goes to the same lunchroom for 173 straight days except  students. So we have to mix up the menus.”

Plus, he said, DPS sometimes buys products almost a year in advance, so there’s still quite a bit of processed products that must be used up — “We won’t just throw stuff away.”

Rebecca Jones can be reached at

Starting young

These 11-year-old Brooklyn students are asking New York City to do something about segregated schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Matilda and Eliza Seki, left, and their friends Noa and Benji Weiss, right, collected signatures at a district 15 meeting to discuss middle school integration efforts.

While they learned about the history of segregation, a group of Brooklyn 11-year-olds took a good look around their classrooms and realized their schools weren’t so different from the photos in their textbooks.

So Matilda and Eliza Seki paired up with their friends Noa and Benji Weiss — two sets of twins — and decided to do something about it. They launched a petition on calling on the city to integrate its schools.

“We learned about separate and equal in the civil rights movement, and that it was not equal,” Eliza said, referring to the “separate but equal” legal doctrine once used to justify segregation. “And since there are schools with people of only one race, and it’s all separated, it cannot be equal.”

Matilda and Eliza are in the sixth grade at M.S. 839, and Noa and Benji are fifth-graders at P.S. 10. They already have a bit of experience in activism, having joined the Women’s March in D.C., and helping to lead environmental clubs at their school. They hold sophisticated views for kids their age, and are aware of the hurdles ingrained in addressing school segregation.

Describing how housing patterns can tie into school quality, Benji began his thoughts by saying: “Let’s say you’re from a different culture or race and you don’t have as much money as other people do — because we still live in a racist country — and you’re in an area where the housing is cheaper but you don’t have as good schools.”

Across New York City, adults have debated how to spur integration in the country’s largest school system — and one of the most segregated. According to one recent analysis, the city’s most selective high schools enroll 84 percent white and Asian students, even though those groups make up only 30 percent of the city’s student enrollment.

But student-organized groups have also been at the forefront of a grassroots movement for more diverse schools. The work of budding advocates Matilda, Eliza, Noa and Benji caught the attention of some those groups, and they’ve now joined the ranks of Teens Take Charge and IntegrateNYC as some of the youngest members. The changes they’d like to see go beyond admissions policies, but also include a push for additional resources for underserved schools, hiring more teachers of color and curricula that reflects all students and cultures.

“We decided it was an important issue and we wanted to help fix it,” Noa said.

Matilda added: “Our schools should look like our city.”

Their schools are in District 15, where 81 percent of white students are concentrated in just three of the district’s most selective middle schools, according to an analysis by parents. The city has launched a series of public workshops to craft a new admissions model to integrate middle schools there, but these kids already have their own ideas for how to do that.

Benji, who is heading to middle school next year, said it would be “pretty good” if schools stopped picking students based on criteria such as class grades and attendance. Such “screening” contributes to segregation because of a number of factors — from which elementary schools students attend, to their parents’ ability to navigate the complicated admissions process.  

“It’s… important to learn about different peoples’ backgrounds, and religions, and cultures,” he said. “And also to make sure that all kids, no matter their race, religion or where they live can get the same, good education.”

Raised Voices

Balloons, hearts, and ‘die-ins’: How Colorado students marked National Walkout Day

Students gather at the Colorado State Capitol to protest gun violence. (Melanie Asmar)

Thousands of students across Colorado poured out of their schools Wednesday to protest gun violence and to remember 17 victims of last month’s deadly shooting in Florida. Chalkbeat’s Melanie Asmar walked with students from East High School to the Colorado State Capitol, where Gov. John Hickenlooper and Speaker of the House Cristanta Duran urged them to remain politically active.

The protests took different forms at other schools – and not everyone wanted the event to be political. There were balloon releases, voter registration drives, and public “die-ins” at major intersections. And in one Denver area school district, a surge of threats cast a pall over events.

Here’s a look at #NationalWalkoutDay from around the region.

Students at Skinner Middle School in northwest Denver marched in silent solidarity.

In Colorado, teenagers can register to vote before their 18th birthday.

At schools in the Adams 12 district north of Denver, a big uptick in threats the night before – and a warning letter from the superintendent – led many students to skip school altogether.

Students at McAuliffe International School in northeast Denver spoke with their shirts. Instead of “Thoughts & Prayers,” they asked for “Policy & Change.”

But their event was not all about politics. They formed a heart with their bodies and read the names of the dead.

At Jefferson Jr./Sr. High School, students promised to work to change school culture.

Many schools released balloons to honor the victims and found other ways to advocate for change.

Unlike some Colorado districts, St. Vrain didn’t officially condone the walkouts, but students at Longmont schools walked out anyway.

Students at Denver’s South High School have been vocal about gun violence. In a recent visit from U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, they rejected the idea that armed teachers would make them safer and demanded that lawmakers do more.

Students from one of Colorado’s KIPP charter schools used their bodies to send a message at a major intersection in west Denver.

Students of color in Denver reminded the public that gun violence is not limited to mass shootings.

Students aren’t just marching. They’re also writing their representatives. State Rep. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat, tweeted a picture of her inbox full of emails from students.

Colorado carries the legacy of the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School, where a memorial asks urgently as ever: “How have things changed; what have we learned?”