By Bruce Finley | The Denver Post
If the school cafeteria is uncool, perhaps professional chefs in a brightly painted, tune-blaring food truck can persuade fickle teenagers to eat today’s healthier, antibiotic-free meals.
That’s what Boulder Valley public school officials — facing 85 percent rejection of school lunches by teens — have been counting on this past year.
White House-backed leaders of the nation’s booming Farm to School movement embraced Boulder’s innovation at a recent national conference in Denver. They see school food trucks as leading a wave, driving healthy eating to a new level beyond the prison-like conditions where hairnet lunch ladies once dolloped school gruel — forging what remains a difficult but crucial culinary connection.
If teens respond, then the more than 40,300 participating schools nationwide can further boost their food bought from local farms — a goal of the Farm to School program, which aims to save farmland from spreading housing and malls.
On the Boulder food truck, chef Rosie Harris and Quentin Kilpatrick have a video screen showing images of farmers. The truck is decorated with pictures of parsley, basil, mint and thyme.
But students are proving to be a very hard sell. Recently at Centaurus High School, some in the parking lot walked straight past the food truck on their way to eat fast food.
“I don’t like the way it smells,” Alexis Gonzales, 17, said as she and a friend headed for her black 1997 Lexus.
“I eat junk food,” said Alejandra Ocampo, 16 — specifically chili-lime chips and ice cream.
Eating healthy appeals to Kaeley Jenkins, 16, but she said she just likes to go home.
“I like not being at school for a certain period each day,” Jenkins said. “You’re at school so long.”
While Enoch Trowell, 15, did stop at the food truck and savored a made-to-order plate of roasted sweet potatoes, a bacon grilled-cheese sandwich and an orange, he acknowledged a serious struggle.
He knows from his mother he must eat more fresh vegetables, and playing basketball and lifting weights along with his studies requires healthy food. Yet Trowell still succumbs to the pull of fast food.
“I sit. I eat. I order more. And more and more and more,” he said, claiming he’s spent up to $20 a day at Little Caesar’s Pizza, Burger King, Taco Bell — even with his prepaid account at Centaurus for food from the cafeteria and food truck.
“Buying stuff from farms is probably better for us,” Trowell said. “It is healthier. It helps us to be healthy. The food truck is good.”
But fast food is practically addictive, he said, and “it just tastes really good.”
Here and nationwide, high school teens present a major obstacle as the Farm to School movementgoes mainstream.
U.S. Department of Agriculture officials estimated more than 23 million children in every state have access to Farm to School food in their lunches. School purchases from local farms have surpassed $385 million a year ($15 million in Colorado), according to USDA data.
Farm to School leaders at the conference in Denver last month celebrated progress away from cafeteria plates of industrial tan-and-brown processed food. Schools increasingly labor to replace the old school food with brightly colored medleys including fresh fruit and vegetables.
Beyond health (30 percent of U.S. children are overweight and obese) and saving local farms, USDA leaders talked of transforming the nation’s food culture, starting with children, pushing the United States more in line with slow-food traditions in Italy and France.
First lady Michelle Obama has supported local food in her Let’s Move! campaign against obesity. The USDA grants $5 million a year to participating schools, with 12,300 recipients since 2013. Legislation in Congress would triple that. Colorado lawmakers also have proposed a state Farm to School program.
Boulder Valley has been an energetic model, now purchasing 50,000 pounds a year of local produce and 200,000 pounds of antibiotic-free beef and poultry. Boulder Valley School District food services director Ann Cooper, an accomplished chef, is leading the effort.
Four years ago, Cooper met Obama in Miami during a rally for salad bars in schools. Cooper has made several visits to the White House.
Last year, the healthier school lunches attracted only 35 percent of students, district data show. Among teens, only 15 percent ate school lunches.
The Boulder Valley School District launched its food truck experiment last fall, using Craigslist to locate a used food truck in Longmont. Contractors renovated it using $50,000 from Whole Foods.
Then Cooper and her team crafted almost every aspect of the food truck experience to appeal to teens.
Food truck chefs, unlike TV chefs in pressed white, high-collar coats, dress casually after a survey in which students deemed casual cooler.
Schools in Minnesota, Vermont and Texas also are trying out food trucks.
The trucks will help kindle more excitement around healthier school food, said Deborah Kane, director of the USDA’s national Farm to School program.
“They’re fun, flashy, and for high school students they’re cool in a way cafeterias might not be. They bring school food into the bustling, mobile here and now and out of people’s perceptions about what school food was like in the past,” Kane said. “Schools have to market their food just like restaurants do.”
For farmers, “the potential economic impact of schools redirecting their school food dollars toward local and regional producers is significant enough to help stem the tide of farmland loss,” she said. “Farmers want to farm. In order to do that, they need customers ready, willing and able to purchase their products. … Farmers also need educated eaters who understand that a purchase that supports a local farmer is a purchase that also preserves farmland.”
In Boulder, Cooper is broadening her innovations to promote healthy food.
A chef who formerly ran a restaurant in London, Cooper holds student cooking contests using ingredients from local farms. Winning recipes make the district menu. Last week’s vegetarian competition, among middle schoolers, yielded “Kashmiri rice with five-spice tofu.”
There’s evidence the food truck is working. This year it averaged 50 to 60 students per hour, Cooper said. It roves among five high schools, one a day. Students can use cash, credit cards or prepaid accounts.
“It’s better because you’re in the fresh air. In the cafeteria, it’s everyone in one space. You get suffocated,” Denise Abila, 17, said at Centaurus, eating sweet potatoes from the food truck. “I get really anxious when I’m around a lot of people. I have to wait until pretty much everyone in line gets lunch before I get lunch. I don’t feel comfortable around so many people.”
When the truck isn’t there, she leaves, sometimes for fast food.
Other schools within the district are calling to line up the food truck to cater events. A group of chefs from metro Denver public schools last week visited Boulder to check out the food truck.
“When kids get to high school, they have an open campus. They can get in their cars. Cars are cool. They can drive to wherever. They can get fast food, whatever they want,” Cooper said.
“But food trucks are something adults do. It may feel freer. You’re outside. For a lot of schools, cafeterias are not where we put the most money. We put the most money into academic areas, and often cafeterias are dull, dreary, not renovated, no windows.”
So far this year, student consumption of Boulder Valley school lunches is up 6.8 percent, Cooper said. “At this point, there’s more than enough local food available.”
And with rain and sun, food production may increase at a faster rate than consumption.