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Finding the “Root” of the problem: Mountain Roots helps provide the local schools with fresh, local food

Some challenges due to funding requirements

By Daisy Willis

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, food security is defined as “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.” The key words are “active” and “healthy,” which imply a diet that supports thriving instead of just surviving. Many people in the Gunnison Crested Butte community feel the strain of their monthly grocery bill, and for most, a dollar saved is worth more than a healthy meal.

Believe it or not, food insecurity is extremely common in the United States and even here in Gunnison County. In an average Gunnison classroom of 24 students, four are living in poverty, six qualify for free and reduced meals through the federal program known as FARM (Free and Reduced Meals), and seven are overweight or obese.

Even though the poverty rate is nearly four times as high in Gunnison as it is in Crested Butte, many children are suffering from the direct correlation between poverty and obesity.

Simply put, low-income families purchase cheap, processed food instead of the more expensive, but also healthier, fresh food options. This also applies to the Gunnison school district, in which budgeting the lowest possible food cost for feeding students is more than just a money-saving technique; it is tied in to the federal regulations imposed on the school district.

For many children, the school lunch is their only full meal in a day, and the school system struggles to fulfill the need for a well-balanced diet while still following federal regulations, so many low-income students lack the proper nutrition and energy levels to learn effectively. The isolation of our valley, as well as the extreme seasons we experience, contribute to the difficulty of raising crops year-round, which cuts down even further on the access local families and schools have to fresh food choices.

Mountain Roots is there to help

There is a large portion of the Gunnison-Crested Butte community that is working to improve the diet of our children, as well as providing education to students and locals who wish to grow their own fresh food. Mountain Roots Food Project is a non-profit, grassroots, community-based organization that is diligently working to change the way people eat, for the better.

They have focused efforts into a “Farm-to-School” initiative. Mountain Roots Food Project’s Farm-to-School coordinator Jenny Whitacre explains the key points behind the Farm-to-School program, saying, “First, it is about bringing fresh, locally grown, and homemade food into school cafeterias, so it tastes good and is truly nutritious. Second, we believe it provides good market opportunities for local producers to increase volume of their sales and to make sales year-round. So it’s about local food systems and rural economic development.”

Holly Conn, the Mountain Roots Food Project director, also spoke about the Farm-to-School program, saying the “programs help connect people with where their food comes from, how it’s produced, and by whom. Mountain Roots’ Farm-to-School program believes the lunchroom isn’t just a place to move ‘em in, feed ‘em, and move ‘em out—the lunchroom is a classroom too, where there is an incredible opportunity to model and teach food choices and healthy behaviors that are the foundation for a healthy future.”

This program has been actively involved in kick-starting change since 2010, assisting with everything from farmers market shopping trips with the school head cooks, to providing funding for price gaps so the district can purchase local, grass-fed beef instead of commercial beef.

“Farm-to-School volunteers [have] tackled menu changes that included more fresh, local, and made-from-scratch items,” says Conn, adding that “individual bottled waters were banned, as were sugar-laden Yoplait yogurts. Students began enjoying homemade granola, Colorado yogurt and fresh fruit parfaits, homemade breakfast burritos, homemade focaccia, whole wheat pizza crust, rolls, muffins, cookies, and other breads. House-seasoned chicken wings replaced preservative-heavy processed wings; meatloaf and lasagna made from local grass-fed beef replaced Salisbury Steak.”

Some of the biggest successes for this organization have been in areas of environmental science and experiential education. They have installed gardens at community schools and are working to integrate hands-on, experiential science lessons into K-12 classrooms. They are swapping out old textbook lessons with exciting new hands-on lessons. On top of that, Farm-to-School offers classroom demonstrations, guest chefs, and even field trips.

Yet despite the best efforts of the people involved, the Farm-to-School program has suffered some setbacks in the past couple of years. When asked what the greatest obstacle has been in assisting the youth of our community, Conn begrudgingly admits that the largest obstacle to change has been the schools themselves. “Though we made great strides in the first five years,” Conn explains, “I’m sorry to say that the lunch program has taken a few steps backward in the last year: local beef was discontinued and many of the fresh/homemade menu items and a la carte items were removed as well.”

Dealing with the feds

When asked about the recent setbacks in the Farm-to-School program noted by Mountain Roots, Crested Butte Elementary School principal Sally Hensley explains, “There are very, very strict rules that [the Gunnison Valley School District] has to follow in order to take advantage of the Free and Reduced revenues and the food commodities that we get from the government. We have enough children in our district who qualify that we financially have to comply.”

Hensley explains that schools in higher income districts that are able to opt out of government assistance have more freedom to source their food and design their menus as they see fit. Although the clash between receiving government assistance and having complete menu control results in lower-quality food for low-income students, Hensley explains that federal regulations do require recipes that utilize lower sodium, sugar, and processed flour levels.

Hensley and assistant principal Bob Piccaro both speak very highly of the work Mountain Roots has accomplished, calling the program “excellent” and enforcing the idea that the Mountain Roots relationship is thriving instead of striving.

Federal regulations aside, Mountain Roots helps provide fresh-from-the-garden food to all children along with education in gardening and harvesting techniques. With the help of the community, the Mountain Roots Food Project can continue to make great strides towards improving diets and promoting farming all across the valley. For further information, go to mountainrootsfoodproject.org.

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