Colorado Rocky Mountain School – Serving up academic excellence and gourmet food.

Oct 12, 2009 1:45 PM ET

The School 

For 50 years, Colorado Rocky Mountain School (CRMS) has practiced environmental stewardship and a commitment to sustainability. Sprawling over 300 acres of pasture and farmland at the base of western Colorado’s snow-capped Mount Sopris, the high school promotes hard, meaningful work both within the classroom and, uniquely, outside, carrying on the ethos of its founders who were looking to start an independent, coed boarding school that would be “an antidote to modern, easy living” and believed that “work breeds confidence, self-satisfaction, the will to live.”

The commitment to work can be found throughout CRMS’s college-prep curriculum. The 150 CRMS students spend two afternoons a week mending fences, caring for livestock, working in the garden or recycling.

This interest in the environment and sustainability is a thread that runs throughout the school. Whether in the academic classroom setting to the extensive active program, CRMS students, faculty and staff are constantly looking for opportunities to implement and explore sustainable options both on the campus and beyond the school’s fences.

It is from this passion for the environment and commitment to the work program that the CRMS garden grew and expanded and became a cornerstone for the school.

The Garden

During the school’s five decades, working the land had always played an important role. However, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that the garden itself became a funded portion of the CRMS program. Initially, through an independent grant and then via CRMS’s formal budgeting process, the garden now is a key component in the school’s infrastructure.

Under the dedication of Linda Halloran a full-time director, the CRMS garden has six elements: organic gardens, nursery, composting program, campus landscaping, public demonstration area of water-wise plants and a summer internship. While all the elements play an important role, it is the organic gardens and composting program that result in a unique relationship with the school’s kitchen.

Currently 1.5 acre organic garden produces carrots, onions, beets, raspberries, leeks, kale, Swiss chard, ten different types of lettuces, cabbage, brussel sprouts, cucumbers, peppers, potatoes, four varieties of summer squash, six varieties of winter squash, rhubarb, asparagus, ten varieties of green house tomatoes, tomatillas, runips, rutabagas, green and yellow beans, eggplant, cucumbers, hot and sweet peppers, garlic, basil and 15 culinary herbs. In addition, the orchards produce apples and apricots.

One hundred percent of this harvest goes to the CRMS kitchen program. Beginning mid April, students and staff start bringing in the fruit and vegetables and continue through late October. While the students are gone for the two summer months, only 10 percent of the harvested foods are served to visiting groups and staff. The rest is frozen or pickled for later consumption. In the fall when the students return, CRMS offers a first-quarter “garden harvest” and a Sustainability Dinner with 250 students, family members and staff attending and 90% of the food coming from the garden.

Throughout the year, 20% of the produce (approximately 6,000 pounds) utilized by the school will have originated from the CRMS garden. With the currently proposed expansion of the garden program, this contribution will exceed 12,000 pounds annually over the next three years.

In addition to the food harvest, all of the food waste and paper products from the cafeteria are collected and composted by a student work crew. During the 9 months that school is in session this comprises 750 pounds of waste weekly. The composting piles are ready for spreading on the gardens within a year. This composting effort keeps over 31,000 pounds of waste out of the landfill annually

But the gardening and composting efforts are only half of the CRMS story. When you think of institutional cafeteria settings serving hundreds of people daily, images of mass produced, non-descript and unhealthy meals spring to mind. Fiona Pax O’Donnell, CRMS’s Director of Food Services, hopes to change that stereotype forever.

The Kitchen

O’Donnell began professionally cooking 20 years ago. After traveling throughout Europe and the Caribbean, she received her culinary degree in Ireland. O’Donnell spent three years as a chef at Russets, an eclectic high-end restaurant in Carbondale, Colorado and also CRMS’s hometown. O’Donnell joined CRMS a year ago, intrigued by the school’s philosophy and commitment to sustainability and the concept of preparing meals for the students that came straight from the garden.

With a vision to provide healthy, nutritious, sustainable meals to the students, similar to the types of meals she would provide for her own family, O’Donnell focused on eliminating processed and unnatural foods, and to use locally grown and organic foods whenever possible. In addition to offering vegetarian options, O’Donnell is sensitive to the ethnic preferences of CRMS’s international students, which comprise 20% of the school’s population and hail from Asia to Africa.

Preparing approximately 500 meals a day, the kitchen staff includes nine members in addition to O’Donnell. Breakfast typically includes homemade granola, organic cereals and a hot meal of eggs, pancakes and whole-grain toast. Lunch includes a main entrée, which can range from a hot sandwich to pasta to a stew, plus a full salad and sandwich bar always featuring in-season fresh fruit. Dinner always has appetizers, a fresh salad bar, a meat and vegetarian entrée, two fresh vegetables (never canned or frozen), and a homemade dessert.

Working within a provision budget, O’Donnell tracks every food item that comes in, and is highly conscious of the ever increasing food costs and fuel surcharges. But by utilizing organic and locally grown foods, she is able to curb these rising costs. Plus, by being committed to a zero-waste policy that includes composting all food and paper waste products and eliminating cafeteria trays, the CRMS kitchen is following the school’s sustainability ethic to the “T.”

In addition to the entire CRMS student body, faculty and staff enjoying these nutritious, gourmet meals, all four quarters have two kitchen work crews where students learn how to prep the evening meal, bake from scratch and learn cooking skills, giving the participating students an idea of what it takes to be a chef.

In Summary

We live in a time of limited resources and an uncertain future, and the need to leave a smaller environmental footprint for the generations to come is at an all-time high. CRMS’s 50-year-old practice of teaching a strong work ethic and creating an interest in sustainability has led to the unprecedented institutional garden and food program that benefits everyone in the CRMS community. Today’s youth are tomorrow’s future and thanks to the CRMS garden and kitchen programs, students are inspired to take the ethics and practices learned at CRMS and apply those principles as they enter the world making it a better place for everyone.

CRMS is an independent that high school promotes hard, meaningful work both within the classroom and, uniquely, outside. It is from this passion for the environment and commitment to the work program that the CRMS garden grew and expanded and became a cornerstone for the school.

  For more information please contact Lisa Raleigh (