Changing the Direction of Food in Minneapolis Public Schools

Changing The Direction Of Food In Minneapolis Public Schools

Mon 18 Mar 2013

Story by Ashley Mueller

Thirteen months ago when Bertrand Weber became the Director of Culinary and Nutrition Services for Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS), his goal was to turn a pre-pack operation serving processed and repackaged foods into an enviable school lunch program based on scratch cooking with fresh, local ingredients.

The problem: 80% of the district’s 61 school sites (which serve roughly 32,000 meals a day altogether) didn’t even have functioning kitchens.

And change wasn’t going to be easy. Its previous food service operation was in existence for nearly 30 years, and many food service employees would require extensive training to function in a revamped system.

True Food Thursday

Weber’s strategy: think big, start small. He piloted a once-a-week scratch cooking program at one of MPS’s seven highs schools in order to lay the groundwork and test a model for district-wide school food reform. The new menu featured items like Birchwood three bean salad (named after the café in Minneapolis’s Seward neighborhood), butternut squash turkey chili, and herb roasted chicken leg. The new items were such a success that students voluntarily nicknamed the day “true food Thursday.”

With feedback from students helping to shape the new menu, Weber expanded the scratch cooking model to all seven Minneapolis high schools, installed salad bars at nine schools (twenty more are on the way), and partnered with local farms to procure free range turkey, grass-fed beef hotdogs, organic butternut squash, and local wild rice.

“Farm to school is about more than getting products from within a certain mile radius from Minneapolis—it’s about building relationships with local farms so we can serve fresher, healthier products; it’s about making a concerted effort to educate students about where food comes from.” Says Weber.

Swiss-born Weber brings a European sensibility to MPS—a good-food-should-be-enjoyed-in-moderation philosophy—not to mention an extensive background in hospitality management. Despite years working with and around food, it wasn’t until Weber’s son was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes that he began to take notice of the food served in schools.

"When I first discovered what was being served for lunch in my son’s school, I was shocked by how bad it was," he recalls. "That’s when I started to become aware of how poor nutrition negatively impacts health and can lead to not just diabetes but obesity, cardiovascular disease, heart disease, and cancer. It made me determined to change the food being served in schools.”

To his surprise, student health hasn’t been the only improvement brought about by the revamped lunch program. Weber says he’s seen a marked difference in student behavior since the new changes took effect, too. "The improvement in behavior is significant. Students are now sitting down like young adults and enjoying a good meal. The lunchroom is a classroom; it’s a time for students to connect, learn and share with each other. When students would rather throw their food away than eat it, you know you have a problem.”

The final step to reform—replicating this model in each of the district’s 61 schools—comes next. MPS is in the process of completing a feasibility study to create a comprehensive plan for moving this goal forward. This summer it plans to launch a summer food truck to expand the summer meal program and partner with Minneapolis-based chefs to refine next year’s menu. Weber also has plans to partner with an urban farm to grow food at one of its environmentally-focused elementary schools; food that will ultimately end up in the school cafeteria.

If there’s anyone who can make this model work, it’s Weber. In 2002, Weber took over the food service program for the suburban Hopkins School District. While at Hopkins, he transformed a traditional, processed food operation into one based on scratch cooking thanks to the fact that all of the schools had fully operating kitchens.

"In Hopkins, we were able to transition to scratch cooking within a year. In Minneapolis, our path is a little longer" he recalls.

With A Little Creativity, Anything Is Possible

While at Hopkins, Weber partnered with the University of Minnesota and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy to launch one of the state’s first farm to school programs; partnerships he brought with him to Minneapolis. “When I first started exploring local sourcing, no one thought it was possible to purchase local products in a cost effective way. But with a little creativity, anything is possible.”

Recreating this transition in Minneapolis won’t be quite so simple, but the need for healthy food is arguably even greater in the city’s schools. Though the district serves an average of 12,000 breakfasts and 21,000 lunches daily—a total of more than 5 million meals a year—there is potential to reach many more students. In February 2012, just after Weber took the reins as Director, more than 85 percent of the district’s 35,000 students were eligible for free and reduced-price meals, yet not all eligible students chose to participate in the school meal programs. Thirteen months later, overall participation is up 10 percent, and rising.

Given those numbers, the potential for impact is great. And Weber is determined not to squander the chance for massive reform.

Click here for a short video documenting MPS’s changing school food program.

About the author: Ashley Mueller is the Farm to School Coordinator for Minneapolis Public Schools where she works on local procurement and nutrition education. In her spare time she teaches yoga and takes her dog on long walks around the lakes in south Minneapolis.


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