Healthy Living

Fresh Approach

School district takes on student nutrition.

REMEMBER THE TATER TOT? How about the canned gravy, shriveled chicken and creamed corn dumped onto trays in school lunchrooms?

Parents at Eagle County schools hope to say good-bye to similar processed foods with a new program called “Fresh Approach” that aims to bring healthier, fresh-cooked meals to school cafeterias. Think: Mac-n-cheese made from scratch with fresh squash hidden inside or spaghetti and meat sauce made with local, organic meat and fresh zucchini.

But there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The district’s Fresh Approach group must raise $200,000 to buy fresh produce, whole grains and better meats and to hire and train staff at 14 schools to prepare that food. This comes at a time when the district faces another round of budget cuts.

Foodies are stepping in to help. This summer and fall, some of the Vail Valley’s best restaurants will host a series of private chef dinners with ticket-sale proceeds going directly to the Fresh Approach food program.

A number of restaurants are now on board, including Brian Nolan’s Group 970, The French Press of Edwards, Paradigm of Eagle, Vista at Arrowhead, among others. Dates, locations, details and reservations can be found online at

Vail Resorts will be a huge supporter of the program, enlisting its executive chefs at several of its restaurants to prepare dinners for the events. On May 7, the Arrabelle at Vail Square held the first chef dinner, in which executive chef Douglas Dodd prepared a three-course meal and wine pairings. Dodd says he feels particularly passionate about the Fresh Approach program.

“I find it disappointing, the options that are still being offered to our kids today,” Dodd says. “Education and awareness will go a long way to improving the way we eat on a daily basis.”
He’s not alone in that frustration. Tara van Dernoot, a parent of a 6th grader at Berry Creek Middle School, started her own personal food fight six years ago. She started out pushing the schools to ditch selling Doritos, Cheetos and other similar snacks in school lunchrooms.

“The district was sending an implicit message that these were good choices for kids to make, and that made me furious,” says van Dernoot. “I didn’t get into this to revamp the lunch program. It’s definitely a case of once I got started, I felt compelled to continue.”
A movement is afoot across the country to bring healthier foods into U.S. schools, as childhood obesity and diabetes hit all-time highs. Organic vending machines are making their way into schools nationwide. First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign pushes healthy foods in schools, while TV star Jamie Oliver challenges school menus on his “Food Revolution” television show and rallies people online to campaign for better food.

Closer to home, school districts in Boulder and Denver recently overhauled their lunch menus. “People are becoming more aware,” says van Dernoot.

Thanks to a coalition of parents led by van Dernoot, Brush Creek Elementary became the first in the district to try out the new Fresh Approach scratch cooking last fall. The result? The kids literally ate it up. The school’s hot lunch sales, which last year had been the lowest in the district, climbed 25 percent as students began begging their parents to eat at the school.

“We know what we’re eating, and it’s good for us,” says Declan Rooney, a 5th grader at Brush Creek.

Brush Creek Elementary principal Anne Heckman even recalls a kindergarten student who at the start of the school year was overheard saying, “I hear this school has a really great restaurant.”

There’s a reason why. “If you were to walk in first thing in the morning, it does smell like a high-quality restaurant,” Heckman says. “The kids want to get down there and check it out.”