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On today’s school-lunch menu: A heaping portion of Minnesota exceptionalism

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack Thursday announced new guidelines seeking to make school lunches healthier.  Under the new rules schools that get federal subsidies will be required to cut sodium by more than half, use more whole grains, limit starchy vegetables and serve low-fat milk, according to the Associated Press

It’s great news for an estimated 32 million kids, many of whom get more than half their daily caloric intake at school. And, thanks to recent legislation that to help schools pay for more nutritious foods, it will be easier for cash-strapped districts to ditch cheap junk foods.

So how cool is it that for a number of Twin Cities public school students, the change will likely be invisible? A number of local districts have long offered meals that are more nutritious than they need to be by law — and are remarkably tasty, too.

St. Paul Public Schools’ 38,000 students get fresh-baked bread and pizza crusts made with white whole wheat flour, homemade dressings and locally grown, seasonal fruits and vegetables. The district’s lunch lady in chief, Jean Ronnei, has gotten national attention for her insistence that food be not just healthy but appetizing.

And it is. I’ve toured Ronnei’s central kitchen — which smells heavenly because of the aforementioned bread — tasted the ethnic dishes her staff has created in an effort to make sure everyone’s home cuisine appears on the menu from time to time and watched middle-school boys choose the salad bar over hot lunch.

An interesting aside: When she started revamping meals, Ronnei conducted focus groups and learned that kids assume they’re being fed junk. So she markets to them in much the way any restaurateur tries to appeal to diners. Dishes have names and cafeterias have attractive signs introducing new items.

Minneapolis Public Schools Food Service Director Rosemary Dederichs sat on the panel that helped develop the new federal rules. I’m sure she’s right that the state’s third-largest district is above average in terms of nutrition — indeed, it’s hard to find a Minnesota school lunch that’s as bad as the ones that prompted the rules overhaul — but I can’t say I’ve ever seen anything I was tempted to taste in an MPS school.

Hopkins, however, has a reputation for top-quality food–so good it contracts with other districts and programs to provide food for their kids, too. Its Royal Cuisine program offers kids whole plums and kiwis, pastas like shrimp scampi or farfalle with chicken and tarragon cream sauce and made-to-order deli sandwiches.

“Slow” and “from scratch” are Royal Cuisine buzzwords. “The food marketing industry has done a remarkable job of convincing the adults and children, that kids need different foods than adults,” the district’s website explains. “This simply isn’t true — or healthy.  The earlier children are introduced to a variety of foods, the broader taste palette they will develop, hence a healthier diet and life they will have.”

Because the high school at the Perpich Center for the Performing Arts in Golden Valley draws from all over the state, students live in dorms and usually eat three meals a day at the cafeteria. The last time I ate there I had a fresh salad and Moroccan chicken with couscous.

I love the periodic family breakfast at my own kids’ school, in part because Bloomington Public Schools makes a mean cheese omelet. I hear the shrimp poppers are pretty good, too.

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