Mountain Roots aims to support and enhance school nutrition
[ By Kendra Walker ]
“We know how important it is for kids to have healthy food to prepare them for their learning experience,” says Holly Conn, executive director of Mountain Roots.
However, when the Crested Butte Community School recently had to close its school lunch service due to staffing shortages and asked that parents pack lunches for their children, many students who rely on school for their nutrition were out of luck.
Conn explains that 9 percent, or at least 90-100 of CBCS’s K-12 students are from low-income families that qualify for free and reduced lunch and depend on the school for their primary source of nutrition. Additionally, Conn says, there’s a subset of families who are above the rates that qualify but are still in need.
While the school is offering a limited number of emergency sack lunches, those lunches include packaged foods that are highly processed and low in quality and nutritional value, says Conn. “It’s empty calories and that’s not what the students need to learn. I can’t think of any adult who would eat the emergency sack lunch every single day and feel good and be able to work and concentrate. Why do we expect that of our kids?” she says. “We recognize the school is doing their best, but we as a community know we can do better than that if we work together.”
Mountain Roots, which stepped up to the plate last year when COVID-19 shut the schools down with a supper program to feed students with the highest need, this fall quickly came up with a solution to get healthy lunches to the students who need them the most.
The Buddy Box program was born, which crowd sources lunch for kids who need it and provides a healthy alternative to the processed foods otherwise available to them. “Our first priority is to meet the immediate need. We want kids to eat healthy,” says Conn.
The idea was sparked when Conn’s 10th grade daughter came home asking if they could pack an extra lunch for her friend, who usually gets free lunch but didn’t want to eat the highly processed foods in the emergency sack lunch.
“It’s really not that much harder for me to pack two lunches, and it occurred to me there might be other kids in that boat,” says Conn.
The Buddy Box program allows for students who need one to sign up to receive a lunch, and parents who are able to can sign up to make an extra lunch. Mountain Roots supplies families making an extra lunch with sustainable packaging, like cardboard to-go boxes, wax paper sleeves for sandwiches and eco-friendly soup containers. Mountain Roots also provides menu suggestions and ideas. The extra lunches can then be dropped off every morning at the CBCS parking lot where Mountain Roots has a booth. Kids who need a lunch can pick one up on their way inside.
Additionally, Mountain Roots has healthy snacks at the booth, such as apples and granola bars, available for all CBCS students to enjoy. “We didn’t want the kids who needed the lunch to feel stigmatized or singled out,” says Conn. “Anyone can swing by and grab an apple and then those that need a lunch can grab one too.” Mountain Roots is reaching out to health-conscious food companies for donations, but also welcomes monetary donations in order to keep purchasing the healthy snacks for all CBCS students.
Since last week, Mountain Roots has been stationed at the CBCS parking lot between 7:45 and 8:45 a.m. with free snacks for all students and the extra lunches for those that need them. So far, about 25-30 lunches are being provided, and even some families in Gunnison have volunteered to prepare extra lunches. Mountain Roots is still looking to hit that 90-100 mark, and Conn hopes that students will warm up to the idea of getting a lunch and the opportunity to try new, healthy foods.
“It increases the exposure for the children who have the highest need to a variety of healthy foods that they probably wouldn’t have exposure to otherwise,” says Conn. “By opening up their surprise lunch box they’re more likely to try new foods and I think it has this really positive, unintended benefit of exposing kids to a wider variety of foods and encouraging them to try it.”
Lunches are passed out at random, so students have a surprise every day. Conn notes that it’s not a perfect system; tracking student allergies and being able to provide allergen-free meals is tricky. Some parents, she says, have been labeling their extra lunches as vegetarian, gluten free, etc. “We just can’t guarantee it, but we’re trying to fill a gap for now. However, the instant feedback we’re getting has been super positive, and as more kids find out about it hopefully more parents will want to make them.”
Mountain Roots plans to keep the program running as long as necessary. “We’re planning to be at the table to help the school and whoever’s involved in creating a better solution. But I don’t think the solution stops with finding someone to hire to run the kitchen,” says Conn. She notes how she’d like to see the school become a primary market for local farmers to help strengthen the local economy. “We really want to be at the table to support the school and the district to examine the larger issues and explore solutions.”
To get involved, Mountain Roots encourages any student in need of lunch to sign up for the program. “Everyone’s welcome, and if you know of a family who needs it, please spread the word,” says Conn. Otherwise, families can get involved by making a lunch to share. Anyone interested can sign up in person at the Mountain Roots booth outside the school every morning. Additionally, Mountain Roots welcomes donations to help support the program and keep it going.