Schools Notebook: Grant supports healthier lunches

Plus, Start Reading Now is using books to boost achievement

Bryn Mawr Elementary students scoop up fruits and vegetables at the school cafeteria's salad bar. Credit: Dylan Thomas

A $550,000 grant will help Minneapolis Public Schools “move forward” toward its goal of providing fresher, healthier meals for students, said Bertrand Weber, the district’s director of culinary and nutrition services.

The grant from Life Time Foundation will be used to purchase new equipment for the district’s Nutrition Center, the central facility in the Hawthorne neighborhood where much of the food served in Minneapolis schools is prepared. New tools coming to the facility include a “cupper” and a bagging machine.

Weber said both would allow the district to prepare fresh sauces, salads and other foods in bulk at the Nutrition Center for shipment to school sites. When made in-house, something like a salad dressing can be made with a few simple ingredients, using less of the sugar, salt and artificial preservatives found in bottled dressings.

“We have the facility, so the goal is to do a lot of bulk food,” he said.

Under Weber’s watch, Nutrition Services is accelerating a shift within the district back to an older way of doing things. Even fewer than 10 years ago, almost no cooking was done at school sites.

Weber said all seven of the district’s traditional high schools, plus four middle schools and four elementary schools, now have full kitchens. Kitchens for two more school sites are planned next year, he added.

Many school meals are now a mix of scratch cooking and food prepared in bulk. Cooking is started at the Nutrition Center and finished in the school.

“We are creating what we call ‘kits,’” Weber said.

The kit for kung pao chicken, for example, could include a sauce prepared at the Nutrition Center and shipped to the school, where chicken and vegetables are then added to complete the meal.

Weber said the goal is to shift the district away from serving processed foods and instead “getting bodies what they are supposed to be eating.”

Life Time Foundation is the charitable arm of Life Time Fitness. The company also plans to collaborate with the district as it redevelops school lunch menus.

The grant was announced in May at an event at Bryn Mawr Elementary, one of many district schools that now offer a salad bar with fresh fruit and vegetables at lunchtime. A group of fourth- and fifth-grade students sampled a “zesty quinoa salad” developed by Roots for the Home Team, which operates a student-staffed concession stand at Target Field serving salads made with locally grown ingredients.

“It was a home run last year,” said Susan Moores, the dietician who launched Roots for the Home Team.

The salad got a mostly positive review from the students, who appreciated the sweet-tart balance. It was served district-wide May 19 and, like other Roots for the Home Team salads, also occasionally appears on the menu at The Wedge Co-op and other local markets.

Andrea Northrup of Nutrition Services said taste tests like the one held at Bryn Mawr happen three times each year at the district’s K–5 schools. The proposed menu items are “new, flavorful dishes that kids otherwise might be hesitant to try,” Northrup said.

The Wedge CEO Josh Resnik said the co-op donates all food used in the taste tests, some of which comes from its Gardens of Eagan organic farm.

 

Using books to fight the achievement gap

A new initiative called Start Reading Now plans to put a stack of books in the hands of about 400 to 450 of Minneapolis Public Schools’ summer-school students in June.

Start Reading Now aims to help close the district’s achievement gap by promoting reading, a strategy that founder Kevin Terrell said is supported by research. Studies show the gap for low-income students tends to grow over the summer, and reading may help slow or reverse that summer slide, Terrell said.

First-graders enrolled at five summer school sites will each get a $50 voucher to spend at a Scholastic book fair. They’ll take home 10 books of their choosing.

Terrell, a management consultant, developed the initiative with co-founder Pam Longfellow, the former finance director of early-learning agency Think Small who now also works in consulting. In addition to the district and Scholastic, they’ve partnered for the launch with Bolder Options, a local youth-development organization that is serving as Start Reading Now’s fiscal agent.

They’ve raised about $20,000 for the first year, and Terrell said they’re seeking additional funding to expand the book giveaway to second- and third-grade students over the next two years. The goal is to track the students with the help of Scholastic and the district to look for evidence of a learning boost.

For more information, or to volunteer at a book fair, go to startreadingnow.org.