This fall, the Boulder Valley School District Food Services team will face a monumental challenge – the return of free school lunch for all of BVSD’s students.
While excited by the opportunity, behind the scenes BVSD Director of Food Services Carolyn Villa and her team are working diligently to ensure that the expansion doesn’t compromise the high standards for food that BVSD has come to be known for across the nation.
Second bite at free lunch
During the pandemic, the United States Department of Agriculture provided funding to school districts, allowing BVSD Food Services to offer free breakfast and lunch to all 28,000 students.
While the pandemic-era benefit came to an end one year ago, last November, Colorado voters went to the ballot box to bring them back. With the passage of Proposition FF, the state created the Healthy School Meals for All Program, providing funding for free meals to Colorado public schools that participate in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs. BVSD is participating, starting this fall.
Villa says there is a key difference between then and now.
“Those were hard years,” Villa admitted. “Before, we didn't have foresight. We didn't know if meals were going to be free the next year. We didn't have the benefit of time to plan and we have that now. Since November, we've been hard at work, getting ready, preparing. That is something we just didn't have the luxury of the last time meals were free in the midst of the pandemic.”
Knowing that free meals are becoming the “new normal,” her department has been able to shift their mentality, while remaining committed to continuing to provide high-quality scratch-made meals.
“We are not just piecing this together for a year. It is forever and this is the way we're going to do business from now on,” Villa said. “We've worked hard to simplify our menu, but it is important to know those simplifications have not come at the cost of quality. We’ve made small changes to the way we prep items. In some cases, we’ve changed who is responsible for different parts of the cooking process. Ultimately, nothing that reduces the quality.”
While there are a lot more students to serve every day, Villa is adamant that Food Services will continue to source ingredients locally and resist the temptation to cut corners.
“People [here in Boulder Valley] really value food. They value local producers, they value all these local farms and the work that we do,” Villa said. “I feel a deep sense of duty and responsibility to do good work here, to make sure that we really are leading the charge.”
BVSD served as an inspiration in previous role
Before coming to Boulder Valley, Villa admired the work of the School Food Project and her predecessor, the incomparable Chef Ann Cooper, from afar.
She was responsible for feeding about 1,000 students in Trinidad School District Number 1, about 240 miles south of Boulder, in southern Colorado.
At the time, there was a national focus on school lunch and making it healthier.
“School food was sort of having its moment in America,” Villa remembered.
In 2010, British Chef Jamie Oliver took on school lunch in the Los Angeles Unified School District in his show “Food Revolution” and First Lady Michelle Obama championed changes in school lunch rooms across the country, including the passage of new nutrition standards through The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.
Like today, BVSD’s School Food Project stood out as a national model for what is possible in school lunch.
“Because of the resources that BVSD has, it really was a national resource for school districts like ours, who were trying to do something with really limited manpower,” Villa said. “I couldn't accomplish huge things, but was committed to do anything I could. I'm proud of what I did down there.”
When an opportunity came up six years ago to come to Boulder to join the team as a district manager, largely overseeing the schools in the Boulder-area, Villa jumped on it.
“It just felt like I would regret not taking the position,” Villa recalled. “My kids could go to these incredible schools and I could come and work for this incredible organization that I had been following and felt strongly about for such a long time.”
Domino’s steered Villa towards the kitchen
Villa says she found her way into the culinary world by chance. One of her first jobs as a high schooler in Colorado Springs was at Domino's Pizza outlet.
“I think I just sort of ended up there because I needed money," Villa said. “Like a lot of teenagers did not take it all that seriously at first, but sort of just kept with it because it seemed like I was good at it and I didn't hate it. I kind of followed that path and then decided to become a franchisee and bought a store.”
It was that store that brought her to Trinidad and eventually pushed her out of fast food to school food.
“I always loved the employees and being a part of the community, but I didn’t like the way the business was run,” Villa said. “The way that the corporation treats franchisees is exploitative and the way that franchisees are supposed to treat their employees is exploitative.”
She also didn’t like the way that Domino’s pushed franchisees to sell pizza to schools.
“Even though it was good business, I always refused to do it,” Villa said. “It just felt wrong. Even before I could sort of put my finger on it, it just didn't feel right.”
Putting students first, always
Today she finds herself in a very different place – an institution that values students and their health.
“That is one thing I've always loved about BVSD, since the first day, was that really at the very top of the hierarchy is what's best for kids,” Villa said. “I am personally very proud to be able to lead this group of incredible colleagues. The work that we are doing is something that we should be proud of as a community. We do it very differently and it really shows that BVSD cares about the whole child and does what's best for kids from start to finish.”
In addition to scaling up their production to serve more students, they are also ramping up their education efforts, so that kids try new foods and understand the value of the quality breakfast and lunch being served here in BVSD. In fact, soon you’ll see the return of old favorites, like Rainbow Days, where kids get a chance to choose different-colored vegetables and fruits and give them a try. They are also introducing salad bars to an entire group of students who don’t know what they are missing, because they started school during the pandemic.
Get to Know Carolyn
Here are a few more details, so you can get to know our new Food Services leader.
No surprise, I love to cook!
While you might think that she sees enough food during the day, she says that cooking is a creative outlet for her and she loves sharing what she’s made with other people.
“As a kid, my family ate very bland food, so when I took my first cooking class in school and started learning about seasonings and kitchen skills, I was hooked,” Villa said. “My husband's family comes from very different ethnic backgrounds than mine, so we use food to help teach our kids about all the cultures they come from. It's also something I like teaching my kids - knife skills, how to balance flavors, how to pick the best produce and cook it many different ways.”
Her favorite recipe? Her mother-in-law’s secret family recipe for Korean BBQ short ribs, "Kalbi."
“I love making them for holidays and inviting people over who would never have the chance to try something like this; plus it gives my kids a sense of pride that this delicious food comes from their own ancestry,” Villa said.
This Old Camper
Carolyn also loves Do-It-Yourself (DIY) projects, especially anything that involves woodworking.
“I enjoy the process of thinking a project through, start to finish, then practicing skills and challenging myself during construction,” Villa said. “For me it's very calming. In a world with lots of distractions, it allows me to focus on something fully. Most projects reach a point in time where you're tired of working on them and it's tempting to cut corners and find an easy way to finish, so it's taught me to see something through and evaluate my own energy levels, find a way to re-energize and do it the right way. That's naturally very difficult for me and I like having the message reinforced internally to take care of myself and recognize my limits.”
A few years ago she decided to build a teardrop camper that she and her family have taken camping all over the country.
“The camper itself took extensive planning and preparation, but it was totally worth it. It's like a member of the family now, and anytime I want to make it functionally better, I just get out the tools and make it happen,” Villa said.
Below the surface
Recently, Carolyn, her husband and kids parked the camper and flew to Cancun for a little tropical R&R. She says they really enjoyed snorkeling with whale sharks and watching sea turtles nest on the beach.
“It was magical, beautiful and gave me the same appreciation for the sea that Colorado has given me for the mountains. It also emphasized for me that I'm so lucky to live in these times, when it's possible for a regular person like me to witness such majesty,” Villa said. “The sharks and turtles had no concern for the people watching them, a good reminder that we are unimportant unless we choose to impact the world around us, so when we expend our efforts we should make sure our impact is positive.”