Students and gorillas enjoy local food on Colorado Proud School Meal Day

At the Denver Zoo today, five gorillas chomped on lettuce and squash. Slightly more delicately, students from Steele Elementary ate pears, apples and wraps. And none of the ingredients in today's meals came from outside of Colorado.

As part of Colorado Proud School Meal Day, participating schools across the state received lunches packed with locally-grown fruits and vegetables and other food from Colorado. Steele students got the added bonus of a trip to the Denver Zoo, where they watched gorillas also snacking on local produce -- something the primates have been enjoying since early August.

The eighth annual school meal day also featured chef demos -- without gorillas -- around the metro area. Chefs such as Daniel Asher from Root Down and Eric Rivera from Lala's Wine Bar & Pizzeria appeared at area schools to show kids how to make simple, healthy food.

"It's really grown," says Wendy White, marketing specialist with the Colorado Department of Agriculture. "More and more school districts are doing it and more and more chefs are doing demos."

The Steele students received a map with their lunches that showed exactly where the food had come from. The fruit, for example, came from Wacky Apple in Hotchkiss; the cucumbers were from DiSanti Farms in Pueblo. (Rocky Ford cantaloupe was supposed to be included in many lunches, but the Listeria outbreak bumped that item.) The Denver Zoo has partnered with Real Food Colorado, a Colorado-based food-system development company that supports farm-to-school programs, as well as LoCo Food Distribution, also a local company. but right now, the great apes are the only animals eating locally, because the gorillas can be easily supplied by area farms with food they like.

"There are certain foods we have to travel far for, but we've found that for foods like squash and lettuce and stuff like that, which are mainly in the great ape diet for orangutans and gorillas, they're the ones we can actually implement this program immediately for," says Sean Andersen-Vie, public relations specialist for the Denver Zoo. "We're looking at ways we can localize food for all the animals."

The zoo currently uses oversized cucumbers from On the Vine Farms in Fort Collins, organic vegetables from Full Circle Farms in Longmont and Grant Family Farms in Wellington, and produce from Petrocco Farms in Brighton.

"These guys, they love the variety, but honestly, they'll eat anything you put in front of them," Michelle Valois, primate zookeeper, says of the big apes. "We try to put as much variety in there as we can, if just for mental well-being."

According to White, 187 school and nearly 60,000 students participated in last year's Colorado Proud School Meal Day; even without counting gorillas, she hopes this year's event eclipses those totals. "It's great that we have the ability to educate kids about where their food comes from and the bounty of products we have available," she says.

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