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

Enrichment gap

Here’s which Denver students lose out on summer enrichment

PHOTO: Hero Images | Getty Images

Denver’s black students, followed by Hispanic students have the lowest access to summer camps and classes while students with the best access are more likely to be white and higher-income, and have college-educated parents, according to a study released this fall.

Conducted by researchers from the University of Washington, the study builds on research that finds children in more affluent families are more likely to enjoy summer enrichment activities, such as visits to museums, historical sites, concerts or plays. Some scholars call it the “shadow education system.”

Two staff members from the Seattle-based Center on Reinventing Publication, a partner in the analysis, wrote in a blog post that there’s been much attention to achievement gaps and gaps in access to high-quality schools, but little talk of enrichment gaps.

“This research is the first step that cities can take to better understand the enrichment gaps that exist between student groups,” they wrote. “The next step is finding solutions to help fill the gaps.”

The study, a working paper that has not been peer-reviewed, used data from a searchable online database of summer programs created by ReSchool Colorado, originally a project of the Donnell Kay Foundation and now a stand-alone nonprofit organization.

A look at the study’s color-coded maps shows a red streak of neighborhoods across central and northwest Denver with high access to summer programming. Blue low-access neighborhoods are clumped in northeast Denver and southwest Denver. Among them are the heavily Hispanic neighborhoods of Mar Lee, Ruby Hill and Westwood, near the city’s border with Jefferson County. At the other end of the city, Montbello and Gateway-Green Valley Ranch — and more affluent, mostly-white Stapleton — are among neighborhoods designated as having low access to summer programs and large child populations.

In addition to differences based on race and income, the researchers found that low access areas of Denver had more English language learners and that residents were less likely than in high-access neighborhoods to have been born in the U.S.

While the study found that summer programs, especially sports programs, are not evenly distributed around Denver, it revealed that parks and libraries are. The researchers recommended that policy-makers use those public spaces to more evenly distribute summer programs. It also suggested that until community leaders create those additional programs in low-access neighborhoods, families be given bus passes or ride-service vouchers to help them travel to programs outside their neighborhoods.


Denver school board pledges to make sure LGBTQ students are ‘seen, accepted, and celebrated’

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Ellie Ozbayrak, 4, sports rainbow wings at the annual PrideFest celebration at Civic Center Park June 18, 2016.

In response to reports that the Trump administration may seek to narrowly define gender as a condition determined by genitalia at birth, the Denver school board Thursday unanimously adopted a resolution in support of transgender students and staff members.

“The board, with its community members and partners, find this federal action to be cruel and harmful to our students and employees,” the resolution said. Denver Public Schools “will not allow our students, staff, and families to feel that they are being erased.”

The Trump administration has not yet made a final decision. But the threat of reversing actions taken under the Obama administration to recognize transgender Americans has prompted protests across the country, including a recent walkout at Denver’s North High School.

Several Denver students thanked the school board Thursday for the resolution, which says the board “wholeheartedly embraces DPS’s LGBTQ+ students, employees, and community members for the diversity they bring to our schools and workplaces, and strives to ensure that they are seen, accepted, and celebrated for who they truly are.”

“It is amazing to hear each and every single one of your ‘ayes,’” said a student named Skyler.

The resolution lists several ways the district supports transgender students and staff, including not requiring them “to undertake any expensive formal legal process to change their names in DPS student or personnel records” and honoring their pronoun preferences.

Read the entire resolution below.