In recent weeks as new federal guidelines for school nutrition programs have gone into effect, my e-mail box has filled up with press releases from companies offering better takes on old standards. You know, whole-wheat corn dogs, lower-fat and -sodium nuggets and so on.
I confess to more than a little impatience with these — and not just because a corn dog, by definition, is swathed in a corn-based batter. A wheat one, whole or not, is a different critter, sometimes trademarked as a Pronto Pup.
My irritation is that we’re talking about large food processing companies trying to make packaged standards fit the new rules. When the aforementioned regulations were announced I got a press release from a local company announcing everything from ready-to-serve stir-fries to pizza on whole-wheat crust.
I called the PR contact at once. How do they get stir-fry into and out of packages while preserving its crunchy texture and bright color, I asked her. I’d love to sample some, and could even provide a couple of student-testers. Could I visit the kitchen and watch the magic?
Reader, I heard back several weeks later that the company’s marketing executive would love to sit down with me to talk about the pizza. And did I realize they were a major, major player in the packaged-pizza-for-schools segment?
There are people hereabouts dedicated to putting decent food in front of kids — particularly inner-city kids who live in food deserts, where meals come from gas stations — letting them in on the identity of the farmer who grew it or the ethnic tradition that created it and then watching as their palates get used to things that don’t come from drive-throughs.
Last winter, through a kind of serendipitous series of happenings, Minneapolis Public Schools got a bona fide big-deal chef, Bertrand Weber. A fixture in the Minnesota farm-to-school movement and a veteran of other school district culinary programs as well as an array of very high-end boites, Weber took the job despite the fact that MPS does not have a kitchen — or money to buy one.
Thumbs up in early reviews
Weber is nothing if not intrepid. On Monday, MPS students returned to schools to find a revamped culinary program. Early reviews are overwhelmingly positive. Weber credits the staff he inherited, which is deep in talent and drive, if held captive by food-processing machines created by the kind of people who thought Tang superior to orange juice.
MPS’ CEO Rick Mills reported to Weber that kids and adults at the 15 schools he’s visited so far this week are pleased. Parents are buzzing about it on FaceBook. And Your Humble Blogger’s own MPS pupils have left the home-lunch fixin’s untouched in favor of Weber’s sandwiches, which I hear feature “good meats and cheeses.”
High schools are seeing the most dramatic change. Food is being cooked — yes, cooked, with kitchen implements that produce heat — on site. Full-scale salad bars have yet to debut, but there are salads. And sandwiches. And produce, lots of fresh, ripe fruits and vegetables. Smaller changes are visible at the K-8 level, where there are hot entrees, salads and sandwiches.
Choosing chicken over nuggets, fresh fruit over canned
Weber is a big proponent of honoring the integrity of food — serving a piece of chicken, say, instead of a nugget. Or a piece of fruit in place of canned fruit salad. Accordingly, he’s redesigned the lunch and breakfast calendars to be more appealing, designating hot entrees as Mill City Café and the cold ones as the True Food Express.
The True Food slogan is the outgrowth of an experiment Weber tried last spring, Real Food Thursdays. I’m not surprised it worked. I visit a lot of schools, and my impression is that students are exquisitely sensitive to the messages we send them about their food.
Giving items restaurant-menu names counts with this audience, as does suggesting that the food being set before them is, in fact, valued.