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Initiative aims to transform school menus

Jennifer Alsever
Special to the Daily
Vail CO Colorado
Special to the Daily
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EAGLE, Colorado – Six years ago, Tara van Dernoot and Natalie Rooney were two pesky sisters who complained about Cheetos being sold in an elementary school cafeteria. Today, they are the driving force behind an overhaul the hot lunch program in all of Eagle County schools.

“We have become a nation of lunch re-heaters, not lunch cooks,” says Rooney, whose two children, ages 11 and 8, attend Brush Creek Elementary in Eagle. “People just aren’t aware of what’s in their food.”

Rooney and her sister are determined to change that. Their passion has prompted a $350,000 fundraising initiative by the district called Fresh Approach to transform school cafeterias into real kitchens.

Wednesday evening The French Press in Edwards will host a three-course $75 private chef dinner to raise money for Fresh Approach. Upcoming fundraising events are set for Paradigms in Eagle on Aug. 11, Vista at Arrowhead on Sept. 29 and at the private home of celebrity chef Kelly Liken in August.

There’s a shift across the country toward better food at schools, with new federal nutritional standards recently enacted and new research suggesting processed foods can lower IQ and trigger ADHD.

But for Rooney, 43, and van Dernoot, 46, the food fight is more personal.

Rooney never gave much thought about what was in her food. That is until 2004, when she noticed some funny red dots on the neck of her youngest son, Finn, who was then 17 months old. Doctors told her he had leukemia. Her first reaction was disbelief. “How does a baby get cancer?” she says.

After three years of chemotherapy and scary complications like meningitis, Finn is a thriving third-grader today. But Rooney’s own reading about leukemia told her that the illness might be linked to environmental factors and chemicals.

Rooney and her husband, Eamonn, rid their home of lawn chemicals and household cleaners and stopped eating processed foods with artificial colors, additives and preservatives. The family now eats mostly organic whole foods.

Years before, Rooney teased her sister for eating that way. “I thought she was a wacko,” says Rooney.

In fact, the two never liked each other much growing up as sisters in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, in the 1970s. “She was a hellion,” says van Dernoot, 46, of her younger tomboy curly-haired sister, Rooney. “Like oil and water,” adds Rooney, 43.

After years of bickering, the two sisters are tight today and spend time skiing and watching British masterpiece classics on PBS together. They finish each other’s sentences when talking about the importance of healthy food.

In 2005, when Rooney was in Ohio fighting for Finn’s life, van Dernoot, 46, took on her own battle in Eagle County. Incensed that Edwards Elementary sold her first grader Cheetos and cinnamon rolls with his hot lunch money, van Dernoot pushed for healthier snacks like Lara Bars and sunflower seeds.

Rooney moved to Eagle in 2006 and joined her sister’s crusade, eliminating junk food from Edwards Elementary. Other parents began asking them to change their schools. Rooney looked at her sister and said, “We’ve got to take on the hot lunch program.” Her sister groaned but agreed.

They were determined, calling and visiting school officials and showing up at school board meetings.

“Their intent was wonderful,” says Ray Edel, the district’s director of nutritional services. But schools faced restrictions about how federal subsidies could be spent, and the school district didn’t have people or money to do what the two women wanted.

Still, Edel got behind them and landed $25,000 from the district to test out scratch-cooking at Brush Creek Elementary last fall. It was a hit. Hot lunch sales climbed 25 percent, and families rave about the school’s “restaurant.”

Bringing scratch cooking to the rest of the district, however, will be costly because it means transforming 14 school cafeterias into kitchen, stocking them with cutting boards, knives, frying pans, pots, storage bins, steamers, heavy-duty food processors and blenders. Plus, 37 workers need to be trained how to cook. They must learn how to make big batches of fresh marinara and cheese sauces, to plan menus and to make purchases months in advance. A week of that training for four workers has already cost about $22,000. The fresh cooking also means two extra hours a day in labor costs, or $80,000 more each year for 14 schools.

Support is growing for Fresh Approach, and the district’s director of fund development, Holly Woods, has spent countless hours orchestrating fundraising and marketing for Fresh Approach. But the sisters still need volunteers to do small jobs and people willing to donate even $10 to $20 if they can’t attend a dinner.

“I feel like we’re over the hump in terms of getting the chefs involved, but we need people to understand why this is important and why we need their help,” says van Dernoot. “We need bodies, and we need money.”

Jennifer Alsever lives in Eagle and is a volunteer with Fresh Approach. Email comments about this story to cschnell@vaildaily.com.


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