Steamboat Springs The utensils in Steamboat Springs school lunchrooms might look like plastic, might feel like plastic, and very well might taste like plastic, but they are far from the environmentally unfriendly, petroleum-based product.
Max Huppert, the new director of food services for the Steamboat Springs School District, approached the Steamboat Springs School Board in September looking to replace the district's nonbiodegradable plastic cutlery and Styrofoam plates with products made from potato starch and sugar cane fibers.
"These are all compost items," he said. "These actually have no toxins that are released into the soil and they compost in 30 to 90 days. There are so many different products out there, some may be biodegradable, and they may go away, but some still release chemicals. The stuff we are using is the top end, the best you can get."
Huppert said that being environmentally friendly isn't cheap.
"It's very expensive - the plates are about 13 cents a piece, and the utensils are 5 cents a piece," Huppert said.
Nonbiodegradable items cost about 5 cents total for a fork, knife, spoon and plate, he added.
"Right now, it increased my costs by basically 25 cents per person just to go green," he said. "But do you care about 25 cents or do you care about the long-term environmental impact on the community?"
Huppert said the community's Green Team approached the district last year about a move to biodegradable products, but no one could figure out the cost.
"Basically, I've researched it a lot and found which products would be best for us and decided that we are going to do it," he said. "I don't want to put things off years and years and years. Every year we do put it off, we put more plastic into the environment."
Huppert, 34, attended culinary school in Baltimore. After graduation, he set off for the mountains of southern Germany, where he worked at a hotel and learned how to snowboard.
"I've traveled all over almost every country in Europe, been to Africa and Russia," he said. "I worked in Greece for a little while, but I wanted to come back to the states and have mountains so I came to Steamboat."
Working in food services at Colorado Mountain College, Huppert said he learned what young adults like to eat.
"It is pretty much the same clientele. When they eat here, they have the same tastes as when they go off to college," he said. "You got to go see what they eat out in town. If that is what they are used to eating then they should be able to get the same stuff here. We are limited on pricier stuff, but the sandwiches they are getting, they'd be spending $7 in town."
Keeping kids at the table
Huppert said increasing the food quality at district schools is key to keeping kids from going off campus at the high school - and to balancing his budget. Other cost-saving measures he is planning on enacting include utilizing the middle school's greenhouse and soliciting food donations.
"I'm seeing if any local ranchers or farmers or 4-H people would want to donate animals to us, where we could have it fabricated at the Steamboat Meat and Seafood Company," Huppert said.
He added that he could use elk, pork, beef or any other product as long as it's processed in a USDA plant.
"We'd just pay the fabrication per pound prices, which is pretty cheap," he said. "They can use it as a tax write off or do it as a donation."
At the middle school, he hopes to engage the school's science classes in developing a year-round produce-growing program.
"That would be something where we could have people donate seeds. : I'm trying to do this one without spending any money," he said. "I hope to have that self-sustaining, running year round, and we can have produce year-round when tomatoes jump up to $40 a case."
Huppert said he hopes to get Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp., along with the Hayden and South Routt school districts, on board in buying the biodegradable products in bulk to lower costs.
He is also making the most of his diverse culinary experience.
"Instead of us getting in all the already sliced-up pieces of beef, which may be $30 to $40 for 10 pounds, I'll get in top-ground and I can break it down myself because I know how," he said. "That can save us $100 or something here and there. It's a huge price difference for already fabricated or pre-made items."
Huppert said that ultimately, his efforts come down to whether the students enjoy the food.
A group of Steamboat Springs High School students eating lunch on the field adjacent to the school Wednesday said they were unaware of the new environmentally friendly products, but said the food quality has increased this school year.
"Maybe that's why the food's costing more," ninth-grader Sylvia Ballesteros said. "The food's so much better, but I'll probably still go off campus when I can because it's a way to get out of here for a while."