Packing up the food
Parent Regina Hurtado works with a nutrition services staff member to package cabbage during a cooking class at Rose Hill Elementary School in Commerce City.

Most parents don’t crave the cafeteria food of their childhoods. After all, who’d reminisce about reconstituted chicken patties, limp green beans and tasteless apple sauce?

But a growing number of parents in Commerce City are not only eating cafeteria food, they’re learning how to cook it.

The classes, which are offered monthly by the Adams 14 school district and so far held at two of the district’s seven elementary schools, feature lunch entrées ranging from beef lo mein to pozole, a pork and hominy stew served with fresh cabbage, radishes and lime wedges.

The classes began in Janury at Monaco Elementary after a group of 20 parents asked for a meeting with district staff to relay their children’s complaints about the school’s cafeteria food. Many of the complaints stemmed from the fact that students weren’t used to the meals, which had changed because of the district’s gradual switch to scratch cooking as well as new USDA health guidelines that took effect last summer.

“We really wanted to teach our parents…what we were making their students for lunch,” said Cindy Veney, the district’s manager of Nutrition Services. “The goal was to get the parents to encourage their children to try the new food.”

The classes, which Veney hopes to expand to all district elementary schools, accomplish that goal in two ways. Not only do participants get a family-sized helping of whatever entrée they made in class plus a green salad, they come home with copies of the recipe in English and Spanish, and the know-how to make the meals again.

🔗Cooking differently

The cooking classes, which cost participants $5, are a relaxed affair. Nutrition department staff lead the sessions, setting up food prep stations, offering friendly instructions and taking on some of the messier tasks, such as handling raw meat.cutting board

At a recent Thursday afternoon class in the cafeteria of Rose Hill Elementary, several moms laughed and chatted as they set to work chopping cabbage, onions and radishes as two large pots of water steamed on burners nearby.

“Look at how beautiful your radishes are,” said Regina Hurtado as she admired Beatrice De Luna’s paper thin slices. “You should see our radishes,” she said, nodding at the slightly fatter slices mounded on a cutting board at the other end of the table.

The cooking skills of parents participating in the classes range widely, said Veney. Even the experienced home cooks among them are not always familiar with new USDA guidelines, and cook with lard or other items that don’t mesh with the district’s new lower fat, lower sodium recipes.

Hurtado, president of the parent organization at Rose Hill and the mother of a second- and third-grader, said she contacted Veney after hearing about the classes at Monaco. She and other Rose Hill parents were similarly concerned about what their children were eating at school.

“A lot of the kids say, ‘We don’t like lunch. It’s gross,’” she said.

But when parents try items like the pozole, they say, “Wow, that’s amazing!,” Hurtado said.

Myanna Schimpf, the mother of a first-grader and fifth-grader at Rose Hill, said, “I feel you can’t implement a health and wellness plan if you’re not teaching parents how to do it.”

🔗A three-year process

The cooking classes, and other efforts to reach parents, mark the culmination of a three-year process to improve student meals. In 2010, most meals contained processed “heat and serve” foods with few fresh fruits or vegetables. Today, 90 percent of meals are cooked from scratch, fresh produce is used regularly and salad bars are the norm in district cafeterias.

“We’re in that final conversion of getting people to realize what is being served,” said Rainey Wikstrom, the district’s school wellness coordinator.

Melissa Rivera, assistant to the manager of nutrition services, looks on as a parent tries the pozole.
Melissa Rivera, assistant to the manager of nutrition services, looks on as a parent tries the pozole.

In addition to the parent cooking classes, the nutrition services departments started “School Lunch for Dinner” in November, serving cafeteria entrees at the monthly meetings of the District Accountability Advisory Committee. At the March meeting, more than a 100 people dined on pozole, fruit salad, homemade rolls and a full salad bar with dressings made from scratch.

Although Wikstrom likened the current push to get parents and families on board to running the hardest part of a marathon, there are signs of progress. Surveys from two recent accountability committee meetings and a parent cooking class showed the vast majority of participants liked the meals, felt school food had improved and said they would encourage their children to eat school lunch. Districtwide, 83 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

Veney said at first she wasn’t sure how well the cooking classes would be received, but she’s happy with the response. Two of the classes so far have drawn 20 or more participants.

“We have a long list of parents who want to sign up,” she said.