Making school lunch tastier. Healthier. Better.

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Let’s get the vocabulary lesson out of the way first:

garde manger (gard mawn-ZHAY’) 1. (n.) A cook who specializes in the preparation of cold foods [fr.], 2. A new food program at Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) that encourages students to eat healthier, nutritious foods in the form of wraps, salads and sandwiches.

Now picture the MPS Nutrition Center, a large industrial kitchen and office complex in North Minneapolis. The sun is just coming up on a cold Wednesday morning, but inside food workers on conveyor lines are measuring and packaging food for all of the district’s schools.

In a small room off the main floor, several food workers and a chef build wraps out of beef cold cuts, fresh vegetables and a shmear of cream cheese. On the other side of a small room, two women in white lab coats and hairnets assemble Greek salads out of lettuce, strips of cooked chicken breast, feta cheese and garnish.

To the adult who has gone years without setting foot in a school lunchroom, it may not seem like much. But to Chris Stewart, a Minneapolis School Board member who has made healthier school meals a personal crusade, the garde manger program was a revelation.

By various accounts, Stewart’s first taste of the new garde manger items either brought him near to tears or caused him to moan in ecstasy.

“The fact that … they are focused now on food that is not just healthy but is visually appealing? Huge,” he said.

The roll-out of garde manger items to high schools and middle schools was just one of the new things happening at the Nutrition Center this fall. A new chef started last spring, bringing the center’s total to two, and new equipment that could reduce food and packaging waste is up and running this fall.

Ironically, rising food and transportation costs helped usher in the new program. The district also is in the final stages of implementing its 2006 Wellness Policy that set new guidelines for nutrition.

“Our students are very, very savvy customers, and they go to places like Chipotle and Bruegger’s, especially around Southwest,” Rosemary Dederichs, the district food service director, said. “And they’re accustomed to getting a different level of food.”

Dederichs added: “We just wanted to bring our menu up a notch, especially for the high schools.”

Minneapolis on $1 a day

Kicking it up a notch, as celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse might say, is not easy when you have about $1.03 to spend per student, per meal.

About two-thirds of MPS students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals under U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines. (A family of four with an annual income of $39,220 or less would be eligible this year.) Other students pay about $2 per meal, a price Dederichs is reluctant to increase.

“We have found in the past if we increase prices, we lose participation,” she said.

In the past year or so, the Nutrition Center’s $15 million budget has been squeezed by the same food and transportation costs that hit average consumers in the market and at the gas pump. When a food vendor asked to renegotiate its contract last year, Dederichs instead moved to centralize food preparations at the Nutrition Center and have less work done at individual school sites.

The shift also made it easier to expand the garde manger program, from a few submarine sandwiches assembled at each of 17 secondary school sites last year, to a larger, rotating menu of items made and packaged at the Nutrition Center. Where there was a chef salad last year, there’s a Maui chicken salad this fall.

“We get better quality, we have better stability and consistency in product by bringing it all in here,” Dederichs said.

Still, the Nutrition Center was spending close to half its budget on food and milk this fall. The target is 40 percent.

To ensure food arrives fresh and safe at school sites, the Nutrition Center is packaging garde manger items, some fresh fruit and other foods on three new “kiss seal” packaging machines ordered two years ago from a Spanish company for around $600,000. Instead of just wrapping foods in plastic — as some Nutrition Center machines still do — they use a heat seal to create a strong, watertight bond.

Dederichs said kiss-sealed foods remain fresh longer, and fewer items are spilled in transport. The new machines also use less plastic packaging.

She estimated the machines would pay for themselves in reduced food and packaging waste in about a year or two.

In the lunchroom

On Thursday, one day after the garde manger foods roll off the kiss seal line at the Nutrition Center, they’re in a refrigerator case at Southwest High School.

When the lunch bell rings at 11:25 a.m., students pour into the lunchroom. Nearly 50 students per minute will go through the line until 11:35 a.m., when the hectic pace finally slows.

The student meal plan allows for one entrée, and it’s clear from the get-go that many more students are choosing pizza or chicken sandwiches than the garde manger items in the refrigerator case. Sophomore Raffi Parisi went for the nachos grande.

“I always usually get the chicken patties, so I wanted to switch it up a little bit,” Parisi explained. Parisi had taken the garde manger items before, when the only other option was something unappealing, “like the pasta.”

Nearby, freshman Brenna Bailey said she was enjoying her garde manger chicken wrap.

“I chose it because I like the stuff that’s in it,” Bailey said, listing off chicken, lettuce, cheese and tomatoes.

Bailey, Parisi and another student, 9th-grader Vanessa Jones — who was eating a Baha grilled chicken salad from the garde manger case — described school lunches as typically bland and boring. Garde manger, they agreed, was an improvement.

Chef Joe Hollenback, a new hire at the Nutrition Center in June, acknowledged that it was tough going trying to win over teenagers. There also is the age-old tradition of deriding school lunch, no matter what it is.

“It’s better-looking food, it’s better tasting, it’s healthier food,” Dederichs said of the garde manger meals. “Do the kids choose it? Somewhat.”

“They still love their hamburgers and their chicken patties, but it’s nice to have the option,” he said.

This winter, the Nutrition Center may fire up their giant, industrial-size kettles and make soup. For years, they’ve served Campbell’s because it was too expensive to make their own.

That, too, got a certain school board member excited.

Stewart said: “These are all steps in the right direction that, unless you know the situation, you wouldn’t know they’re enormous leaps.”


A work in progress

The push to cut fat and boost nutrition in Minneapolis Public School meals didn’t begin with garde manger, and it won’t end there, either.

Nutrition Center Director Rosemary Dederichs said dessert was phased-out two years ago. Except for special occasions, students get a treat once a week on Fridays. It’s a frozen 100-percent juice bar.

This year, off-menu a la carte options disappeared. And even before the district implemented its 2006 Wellness Policy, all meal items met or exceeded the new, stricter nutrition standards, Dederich said.

In coming years, Dederich and her staff aim to cut sodium and trans fats from foods, and to increase protein from legumes. Dederich’s efforts earned her a nomination to two National Academies of Science committees.

It may not be long before Dederich is addressing a Congressional Committee on student nutrition — for the second time — but that won’t distract from work at the Nutrition Center, she said.

Said Dederich: “We’re just always, always, always a work in progress.”