Healthy Eating at CSS: A Win-Win for Farmers & Families

Chef Lori Burgess of The Colorado Springs School provides students in PreKindergarten through grade 12 with nutritious, homemade meals made fresh from locally-grown fruits and veggies, a win-win both for farmers and families across Colorado.

Since August, CSS has been placing orders through Mountain Freshies, a provider of organic and natural produce grown by sustainable farmers in North Fork Valley in western Colorado. “It’s good food, and it helps farmers,” Burgess says.

CSS is proud to be the only school in the area served by Mountain Freshies, whose primary producer – Austin Family Farms – dates back to the ’70s. Not only does farm-to-school support farmers, but it also promises the most nutritious foods and instills healthy eating habits in children ranging from elementary school through high school at CSS.

“Strictly from a health perspective, it’s so important to eat as locally as possible,” Mountain Freshies Owner Nancy Scheinkman tells CSS. “As soon as fruits and vegetables are hatched from the soil or off a vine, they immediately start to lose vitamin content. Produce purchased from store shelves is likely already a few weeks old because of how far it has traveled."

In 2017-2018, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention reported obesity in approximately 14.4 million American children and adolescents ages two to 19.

“We have healthy students who are active, and listening to what foods excite them makes me happy,” says Burgess, whose typical Mountain Freshies delivery includes seasonal items like locally sourced butternut squash, yellow squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, cilantro, basil, apples, watermelon, pears, and more.

Her most recent order this month contained potatoes, organic bottled lemonade, matcha mint lemonade, and peach apricot apple juice supplied by Big B’s Fabulous Juices in Hotchkiss, Colo., along with citruses—oranges, lemon, and grapefruit—received by Mountain Freshies from farms in Arizona.

Even the youngest Kodiaks appreciate the quality of meals provided in the Children’s School at CSS. “Lunch is my favorite time of day because it’s always delicious,” says 1st-grader Jayd W. '33 while eating cheese pizza, vegetables, and fruit.

Research shows that, by age three, the intake of fruits and vegetables among U.S. children begins to decline, with more than 80 percent of students in middle school not getting the appropriate servings of either per day.

“Increasing access to [healthy] foods increases vitally important micronutrients for learning, behavior, and growth,” says Dr. Kerri Bagnall P'24, a physician at Iron Horse Pediatrics. “These include zinc, iron, B vitamins, and omega fatty acids.”

Dr. Bagnall also notes studies indicating that children are most likely to explore and continue choosing healthy foods when exposed to them both in school and while surrounded by their peers.

CSS’s community garden, which is nurtured by students and faculty on the school’s 28-acre campus each year, plays an instrumental role in establishing students’ understanding of the importance of healthy eating. While younger students are responsible for planting seeds every spring for harvesting in the fall, Middle and Upper School CSS students help to maintain the garden through a variety of hands-on projects that include building composting bins and putting the beds to sleep for winter.

Vegetables and fruit from the school’s garden also make their way into Burgess’ kitchen and, eventually, students’ stomachs whether they realize it or not. For example, she added heirloom tomatoes harvested on campus by students to both salads and homemade pizza in the fall.

With fresh fruits and veggies comes extra work and preparation, and Burgess is thrilled to have a dedicated crew to help with slicing and dicing so students can enjoy them immediately. Burgess, with more than 25 years of experience working in the foodservice industry, loves a good challenge when it comes to creatively incorporating healthy ingredients into childrens’ meals.

“Kids will eat a whole pear, but try to get them to eat a whole butternut squash,” she says. “I put it in macaroni and cheese. The orange looks like cheese.” Burgess also adds chopped spinach to her spaghetti sauce.

In line with the school’s mission of promoting independence and inquiry – among other things – to prepare students for a dynamic world, Burgess encourages each child to be curious about what it is they have on their plate. For Thanksgiving, each meal included fresh cranberries whether the student requested it or not.

“Some of them haven't tried certain vegetables or fruit,” Burgess says. “I tell them, ‘I’m going to put it on your plate, and you can see if you like it. Just see. If you don’t like it, that’s fine.’”

For Karin Ellis P'31, P'33, who played a key part in establishing the farm-to-school program in Lewis B. Maytag Dining Hall at CSS, it’s about more than just ensuring her son and daughter receive nutritious meals.

“Chef Lori is so nurturing to our children, and they are able to bloom because they feel that love and support,” Ellis says. “That’s what I love about CSS. It’s not just how we can help our school community, but how we can help the outer community. We’re teaching kids about the importance of healthy eating, and we’re also making an environmental impact.”