Good food at school

USDA recognizes MPS as a leader in school food

All Minneapolis Public Schools have salad bars at lunch. Photo by Zoë Peterson.

Bertrand Weber ran five-star hotels and high-end restaurants. Now he puts good food in Minneapolis Public Schools.

“We’re the best kept secret,” Weber said. “I run the largest restaurant franchise in the Twin Cities.”

Weber, the district’s director of Culinary and Nutrition Services, serves more than 43,000 meals every day at 73 schools without high fructose corn syrup, trans fats, artificial colors or preservatives. This is known as “true food.”

Under Weber’s direction, the district is leading the way with a farm-to-school program, a garden-to-cafeteria pilot program, family-style dining and higher service standards.

Katie Wilson, deputy undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, toured the some of the district’s schools and kitchens on Sept. 23. Wilson said she tours districts that are doing innovative and “outstanding” work worth highlighting.

“I visit when a program is doing extraordinary work: out-of-the-box thinking that’s in the best interest of the kids. That’s exactly what we saw here,” Wilson said. “There are great programs all over the country, but Minneapolis is moving the dial forward and pushing the envelope, saying it’s not school food, it’s good food at school, and that’s exactly the idea we want to get across.”

Family style dining

Allowing students to sit in community and serve themselves at lunch, engage in conversation and share cleanup responsibilities is one of the programs MPS highlighted during Wilson’s tour.

Wilson said the family-style dining at Webster Community School is the only public school she knows of that has successfully implemented the model.

“The family style dining is only in one school right now, but it’s big,” she said. “It’s a challenge and they’ve really worked around a lot of challenges.”

Ginger Kranz, Webster’s principal, wanted to introduce family-style dining at lunch to give students a chance to sit down for a meal and enjoy the company of their peers. Lots of social-emotional learning happens at meal times, but with fast food and busy schedules, not all students get the opportunity to benefit from the teachable moments that arise around the table.

“As a society, we’ve lost — I don’t want to say the art of dining — but we’ve lost the importance of family dining, family meals and what real food really is,” Weber said. “I think students, by the time students graduate high school, have not built any social skills. We haven’t taught them any table manners, any social skills. It’s just get ‘em in get ‘em out. So I think family-style dining is just perfect.”

Farm to table

Weber started dabbling with the idea of farm-to-school in 2003. When he took over MPS’ Culinary and Nutrition Services in 2012, he made farm-to-school part of his vision for the future of the district’s programming.

The result is not only fresh food in the schools but an educational opportunity for students and a boost for small farmers, Weber said.

“It’s more than just sourcing, it’s building the partnerships with the famers, it’s contracting with small and emerging or immigrant farmers so we have an economic impact,” he said. “It’s about education, it’s about doing taste-tests, it’s about partnering with the school gardens so we can incorporate them.”

The district published a “Farm to School Toolkit” describing useful tools and resources as a model for other schools interested in buying fresh, sustainably grown produce from small- and medium-sized local farmers.

Monica Romero, the district’s farm-to-school coordinator, is also overseeing a garden to cafeteria pilot program.

Roosevelt High School partnered with Spark-Y, a nonprofit that facilitates action-oriented labs focused on sustainability and entrepreneurship, to develop a greenhouse and community garden.

“What’s remarkable about Roosevelt High School is that we’re able to have mixed greens through the winter thanks to the greenhouse,” Romero said.

The school’s garden — which was designed, built and has been sustained by students — doesn’t produce enough to fulfill all the cafeteria’s needs. Kelly James Kidwell, a senior at Roosevelt who works on the project, said that isn’t the point.

“This is an idea,” Kidwell said. “We aren’t feeding the whole school, but it’s a place to start.”

Wilson said the pilot program represents a larger shift in school nutrition trends. “Things aren’t going to change overnight,” she said. “This is how it all begins.”

Client Service

Weber said improving the experience of the client — or student, in this case — has been a focus of his work.

“One of our mottos is that whenever we make a decision we always ask ourselves: Will this benefit the kids? If it’s strictly financial, we have to reconsider,” he said.

Alan Shannon, director of Midwest Region Public Affairs for the USDA Food & Nutrition Service, said Weber proved his commitment to this mindset by embracing the new school meals standards that went into effect in 2012.

“In this arena, Minneapolis has been a leader from the start, embracing those new standards, saying, ‘Not only should we do this, we’re excited to do this,’” Shannon said. “Bertrand sees it as an opportunity, and he’s done a bang-up job.”

Weber said he is excited to make meals better for students and is about to get all of the district’s staff excited, too. Shannon said this buy-in is crucial to the success of the programming.

“It takes the teachers and the staff participating with the kids more because maybe they’re not used to these fruits and vegetables, they may not be accustomed to the food, or eating this way so they might need a little help,” he said.

Weber was able to introduce salad bars into all the schools, and developed a system of prepackaging high-quality meals for schools that don’t have kitchens. After years of eating the district’s “true food,” some students eat piles of fruits and vegetables without a second thought.

Wilson said she was impressed by the transformation Weber has made and the impact it has on the students.

Weber said making the change wasn’t easy at first — financially or interpersonally — but now he has found his stride and has nearly realized his vision for the district’s nutrition programming. There’s more to come, he said.

“I laugh with the staff because I drove them crazy. I just don’t stop,” Weber said. “We don’t refer to our food as ‘school food’ because our food is just ‘good food at school.’”