I recently went to lunch with my 3rd grade daughter for Take Your Parents to Lunch day at Lowry Elementary school in east Denver. As any proud parent wants to do, I wanted to brag about our school food—the scratch cooking, the salad bar, the engaging cafeteria manager.  Since I’m the co-chair of the school’s Health & Wellness Committee and a LiveWell Colorado staffer to boot, I wanted to show that the school food was consistent with the healthy messages we’ve worked hard to spread throughout the school.  To my delight, I was not disappointed.

I could go into detail about the great food that was offered, how my daughter ravenously ate the freshly cooked barbeque chicken and reveled in her kiwis taken from the salad bar.  I could describe the tasty seasoning of the chicken gumbo I ate, the fresh greens and homemade ranch dressing on the salad bar, or the convenience of water pitchers and cups placed on each table.  But what I want to highlight is how these great menu offerings and scratch cooking—put into place by Denver Public Schools—are wonderfully implemented at Lowry. 

Lowry’s cafeteria manager, Princess Greene, is one of the keys to the healthy school food culture we’re building in our school community.  In addition to knowing every student’s name, she greets every student in the lunch line with a smile, encourages them to try new foods, visits student tables for friendly chats, and makes the lunchroom a warm, fun place.  At breakfast, which is free for all students, she’ll serve up her famous breakfast burritos and sit parents down for one too if she finds out they didn’t eat yet. She is the champion of healthy school food, not by shouting it from the rooftops, but by making it personal for students and parents.

She’s even gone so far as to work with our Health & Wellness Committee to create the Lowry “Soar” Cupcakes—which are healthy sweet potato muffins that parents can order for class birthday parties to limit the sugary treats typically offered.  And parents are ordering them by the platter each month.

We’re fortunate that Lowry already had so many healthy school programs in place before Princess took over the cafeteria two years ago.  We have a huge school garden, kids plant seeds in the classroom, garden produce is served on the salad bar, we have a top notch PE teacher, and we recently switched to having recess before lunch—a strategy shown to increase students’ propensity to eat more (hopefully healthy) food. 

We still have our challenges, like the sugar-laden holiday parties and teachers using candy and pizza coupons as rewards, but the culture is certainly changing.  Many kids, including my daughter, brag about the scratch cooking and look forward to eating school lunch.  Parents appreciate the healthy “Soar” Cupcakes they can order and the school farmers market featuring school garden produce.  As a parent who remembers school food consisting of mystery meat and reconstituted mashed potatoes, I’m amazed at the potential for schools to serve and support a healthy culture for our kids.  It will take engaged administrators, parents, teachers, and nutrition staff like Princess to make our schools healthy institutions where our students will thrive.