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 [email protected]

raising the curtain

Aurora high school students started rehearsing a musical about an earlier time — and discovered ‘harsh truths’ about today

Ebony Nash, left, sings during a rehearsal of Ragtime at Hinkley High School. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Nine weeks ago, more than 50 theater and choir students at Aurora’s Hinkley High School came together to begin work on a musical set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York.

At first, the kids did what high school students often do — cluster into familiar cliques, or self-segregate by race. Then the students started immersing themselves in the material.

The musical, “Ragtime,” intertwines the stories of a white family, a Jewish immigrant family and an African-American couple to spotlight differences and commonalities in the American experience.

At the urging of their teachers and directors, the Hinkley students began to use the plot and characters to examine their own actions, prejudice and biases. About 92 percent of Hinkley’s more than 2,100 students are students of color, the vast majority of them Latino.

The cliques and segregation slipped away. The production began taking shape.

“Ragtime” gets its Hinkley High School debut on Thursday and will be performed again on Friday and Saturday.

Chalkbeat sat down with a group of students involved in the production as they were in final preparations to learn about what their experience had taught them. The following is a portion of that conversation, slightly condensed and rearranged for clarity:

Janelle Douglas, a 17-year-old senior who portrays a friend of one of the story’s main characters, said the first time she saw and read through Ragtime, “it was intense.” She often cries as she rehearses her solo, sung during a funeral.

DOUGLAS: “I thought, this is powerful. This is overwhelming. This is amazing.”

Pamela Arzate, 17, plays the role of Evelyn Nesbit, a real model and actress who is incorporated into the fictional story and accused of being shallow.

ARZATE: “It’s very eye-opening because you look at it and it’s just a simple musical, but if you take a step back and go to the real world, it’s the exact same thing that’s going on today.”

Hodaly Sotelo, 17, plays the role of Mother, a woman whose attitudes toward her identity as a wife and woman evolve throughout the story.

SOTELO: “It reminds me of when I was younger and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re over all that racism.’ But now, I look back and I think, what the heck? This stuff is still going on and we thought it was way over.”

Brianna Mauricio-Perez, 17, is one of two student directors.

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “It talks about all of the harsh truths that no one wants to talk about.”

DOUGLAS: “I think it’s safe to say it shows the true colors of our history.”

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “Even within our cast we did have to have a talk about how we were so separated because we were at the very beginning. Everyone was in their little groups and with their friends. You just want to keep to yourself.”

DOUGLAS: “It was literally ‘Ragtime.’”

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “We had a big talk with everybody. Things have gotten so much better. By the end of Act Two, we were all mixed up.”

Brenda Castellanos, 17, plays the role of Emma Goldman, drawn from a real-life political activist and anarchist.

CASTELLANOS: “Now that we’re closer, now that we’re all comfortable, we put in more effort.”

After nearly every rehearsal, teachers and directors give students a talk, urging them to immerse themselves in the feelings of their characters, relating to them if necessary through their parents, grandparents or ancestors who were immigrants, or through current events.

“What if you saw someone beaten, and bloodied and killed in front of you?” one director asked.

They also remind students of why the play should be impactful. “You have to figure out how for two-and-a-half hours you can give hope to that audience,” Marie Hayden, Hinkley’s choir director told students last week.

CASTELLANOS: “I think it it helps us. Every day, we get more into it and more into it until we actually believe it. You actually feel it — like how Janelle feels when she’s singing and she starts crying and makes everybody cry. We all feel connected.”

Students say they have different scenes that impact them the most, but they don’t hesitate to find how the scenes relate to their life despite the story being set in the first decade of the 1900s. Hayden’s class and the practice for the musical are safe places where they can discuss those parallels, they said.

Shavaun Mar, 16, is a junior who plays the main character of Coalhouse Walker Jr., a ragtime piano player who is the target of racial attacks and struggles with revenge and forgiveness.

MAR: “I feel like that is crucial that we give people those opportunities to talk because a lot of people have very valid things to say but they just don’t have a way to get it out.”

CASTELLANOS: “The shootings.”

ARZATE: “The racism. They help us discuss it because there’s so many things that are going on. Pretty much everyday there’s a tragedy going on. And so, in a way, we can use that sentiment, that emotion that we feel with the real world and convey it when we’re doing this show. We use those feelings and we try to think about it in that way. To display that emotion. To display it to everyone else. And not directly represent what’s going on today but just to give them that ‘aha’ moment, like ‘wow.’”

Ebony Nash, 17, plays the character of Sarah, an innocent girl who wants to help her boyfriend settle his problems.

NASH: “It just makes us want justice in real life because these things are still going on even though it’s not out there. It just makes us want justice for our community. This musical showed me that I need to become better within myself because I’m not perfect.”

SOTELO: “It opened my eyes a lot more for sure. This kind of just makes me realize the problems I have. It makes me realize yea, I’m having immigration issues with my father right now, but that also my friends, you know, they’re going through the same thing too. This DACA stuff or this coming out stuff. I became more accepting of what other people might be going through and how I can help.”

MAR: “The past few years, I have been in a bit of a shell. So putting myself in this situation and pushing myself to be this other person has really shown me what I’m capable of and it’s helping me break out of that shell and realize who I am as a person.”

NASH: “Basically, this is our getaway from real life because we get to come on stage and be somebody else. It also makes us want to put the story out right so people can understand. So people can feel what we want them to feel.”

CASTELLANOS: “That there’s hope after all this corruption that’s going on.”

DOUGLAS: “That even in your bad times you can still laugh, cry, dance.”

NASH: “What I want people to get from this is change. To learn how to change and learn how to forgive and learn how to come together as a community and just, like their worth.”

SOTELO: “And to be strong. To stand up for what’s right.”

ARZATE: “And it might sound weird, but I feel like they should feel a certain level of uncomfort because that means that they’re going to look at themselves while seeing the musical. Maybe they’ll go ‘I’m uncomfortable because I do that’ or ‘I have that prejudice’ or ‘I feel that certain way,’ so if they come out and they feel uncomfortable and then at the end they’re like, ‘Wow. There’s that hope for change.’ Hopefully that like…”

DOUGLAS: “… It inspires them to do better.”

ARZATE: “Like, you can do it.”

SOTELO: “It’s kind of like a water droplet. One small move can domino-effect to something bigger.”


Taking attendance

Want to make middle school admissions more fair? Stop looking at this measure, parents say

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Middle school students write their names down at a high school fair in Brooklyn.

Parents across New York City have pushed for changes in the way selective middle schools pick their students, saying the process is unfair.

Now, a group of Manhattan parents has come up with a novel solution: Stop looking at students’ attendance records.

The parent council in District 2 — where about 70 percent of middle schools admit students based on their academic records — points to research showing that students from low-income families are far more likely to miss school. Those children are at a distinct disadvantage in the competition for the district’s top middle school seats, the council argues, even though factors beyond the control of any fourth-grader — especially family homelessness — often account for poor attendance and tardiness.

“This outsized focus on attendance disproportionately impacts students who don’t have secure housing and may not have secure healthcare, and that is troubling to me,” said Eric Goldberg, a member of the community education council in District 2, which includes stretches of Lower Manhattan and the Upper East Side. “There are many factors that should not impact a student’s educational opportunities — and the way the system is set up, it does.”

Eighteen of the district’s 24 middle schools are “screened,” meaning they rank applicants based on factors including test scores, grades, and interviews. Of those, all but one school also considers how often students were late or absent in fourth grade, according to the parent council.

Most of the schools assign points to each factor they consider. Some give absences 10 times more weight than science or social studies grades, the council found, while others penalize students for even a single absence or instance of tardiness.

Disadvantaged students are especially likely to miss school.

A recent report by the city’s Independent Budget Office found that homeless students are more likely than other students to be chronically absent — typically defined as missing about 10 percent of the school year.

Schools with the highest chronic absenteeism are in communities in “deep poverty,” which have the highest rates of unemployment and family involvement with the child-welfare system, according to a 2014 report by the New School at the Center for New York City Affairs.

“We can use chronic absenteeism as a good guess of all the other things kids are dealing with,” said Nicole Mader, a senior research fellow at the New School and a co-author of the report. “If these middle schools are using absenteeism to weed kids out, that means they’re going to automatically weed out those kids who have the most barriers to academic success already.”

The attendance requirement can put pressure on any family, regardless of their financial status or housing situation.

Banghee Chi, a parent of two children in District 2, said she sometimes sent her younger daughter to school with a fever when she was in fourth grade rather than have her marked absent.

Her daughter would show up to class only to be sent to the school’s health clinic — which would call Chi to pick her up. Chi was thinking ahead to middle school, when a missed day of class could hurt her chances of getting into the most sought-after schools.

“It was something I was really conscious and aware of during my child’s fourth-grade year,” she said. “I think it’s unfair.”

The education council’s resolution, which will be put to vote in December, is nonbinding because middle schools set their own admissions criteria. But a show of support from parents could lead to action from the education department, which has been prodded by integration advocates to make other changes in high school and middle school admissions.

This summer, the department announced it would end the practice of “revealed rankings,” which allowed middle schools to select only those students who listed them first or second on their applications. The city is also appointing a committee of parents, educators, and community leaders in Brooklyn’s District 15 to come up with a proposal for making that district’s middle school applications process more fair.

“We’re collaborating with communities across the city to make school admissions more equitable and inclusive, including in District 2,” said department spokesman Will Mantell in an email. The department looks forward “to further conversations about this resolution and other efforts to improve middle school admissions in District 2.”