Mr. Jones finally found his calling at St. Labre Indian School five years ago, when he returned with his wife to her ancestral homeland, the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. The circumstances of the journey were tragic. Their ten-year-old-daughter had been diagnosed with a brain tumor and died five months later while they were living in Minnesota.
“I had a lot of jobs over the years,” says Mr. Jones. “I was a mechanic, owned restaurants and worked other places, but after our daughter passed away, I realized I wanted to do something more purposeful in life.”
What’s the biggest challenge in the food service department? “That’s easy,” laughs Mr. Jones. “Preparing and serving 1,500 meals each day.” The key word here is “preparing.” St. Labre meals are made from scratch, entailing everything from the baking of all breads and rolls to cutting and slicing the many fruits and vegetables that adorn the food lines.
Not to forget the meat. Nearly twenty years ago, an entire ranch was left to St. Labre as a bequest. Shortly after, a rancher called to say that all his pastures and hay crop had been hailed out and he had about 80 head of bison he wanted to donate to the school. That herd eventually grew to well over 100, and the school began processing the animals for use in the meals program.
Last summer, Mr. Jones attended the National School Nutrition Conference in Atlanta and gave a presentation on how to lower the amount of sodium in school meals. “It’s a simple equation,” he says. “Buffalo meat has about one fourth the amount of sodium as beef, and much lower instance of cholesterol and trans-fatty acids. So serve the kids buffalo instead of beef.”
“When I think of food for the school, I am always thinking good nutrition, and our program is top tier in that category,” he continues. There is always a fruit for breakfast, too.” He points out. “Lunches always include a fruit, and a salad bar loaded with fresh vegetables. Legumes are served once a week with other high fiber offerings.”
Like most locales that are wracked by poverty, many people on the reservations suffer from poor nutrition. Diabetes and obesity rank near the top of diet-related diseases. The symptoms of poverty, including poor nutrition, lead to early deaths on the reservations at a much higher rate than the national average.
Mr. Jones is intense about providing nutritious meals for the kids. At the conference, he became known as the buffalo man. “I told everyone that they needed to start using buffalo in their food programs,” he laughs. “But they told me that they didn’t have a ranch to raise them on.”
Mr. Jones and his staff of 26 on the three campuses of St. Labre Indian School are making a difference in the health and well-being of the children they serve. He is also quick to point out that hungry children don’t do well in the classroom. “They need that nutritious punch to help their brains work at maximum capacity.”
Thanks to Mr. Jones and the St. Labre Food Service Staff, nearly 750 children and young people are enjoying good food and excelling in their studies every day.