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Lunch = Happy Hour at MPS these days

REUTERS/Mike Blake
Fresh, ripe fruits and vegetables are making an appearance on MPS lunch trays.

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

Courtesy of Minneapolis Public Schools
Bertrand Weber

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.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Steve Rose on 08/30/2012 - 12:49 pm.

    Positive Reviews must have been from high school kids at the front of the line. A 15 minute line and a 20 minute lunch period are leaving a couple kids at my house hungry. It will be brown bag until something changes.

    • Submitted by M Richards on 08/30/2012 - 01:49 pm.

      Ditto

      Quick delivery is still elusive. The food that my student has had so far (day 2 – pizza both days) gets good reviews. Need a better delivery system.

  2. Submitted by Beth Hawkins on 08/30/2012 - 02:15 pm.

    A few glitches in the system, then

    Marg, I know Day 1 was supposed to be (and was at at least one of YHB’s family’s schools) cheeseburgers and baked sweet potato “fries” with seasonings that apparantly make them magically more appealing than mine. Also on deck earlier in the week: Penne marinara and baked chicken.

    Steve, wearing my parent hat, I know I wish Chef Weber’s powers reached far enough to get a) the adults to sit and eat with their pupils and b) the whole affair to resemble a meal more than a scene from “Lord of the Flies.”

    I hear tell the food will be on offer starting next week at the district’s new HQ, the Davis Center.  My spy specifically said she’s looking forward to giving up her Lean Cuisine routine.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/30/2012 - 04:25 pm.

    Happy hour

    Wait… Tang isn’t as good as orange juice?

    Broccoli is – for some people – edible?

    Lunch is down to 20 minutes, and it takes 15 minutes to get it?

    Yep, better delivery is essential, and yes, consumers / students are exquisitely sensitive to the message(s) being sent via what they’re being served.

    I still have memories (note that I’ve not labeled them as “pleasant”), decades later, of “grilled cheese” sandwiches that were, in fact, deep-fried, with all the nutritional benefits that come with that method of preparation, and for years, carried with me the trauma of “mystery meat,” which arrived on the plate as a slice of the sort of thing never seen in nature. It was an inch-thick, perfectly-circular slab of… well… something. Gray and vaguely meat-tasting, it always had not just veins, but whole arteries of fat running through it. My classmates and I were never able to get the cafeteria ladies to tell us what it was, but whatever its origins, it was as far from fresh fruit and veggies as it’s probably possible to get.

    But, like George H. W. Bush, I’ve always hated broccoli, and as an old man, I don’t have to eat it, so I don’t. And I won’t eat it, no matter how healthy it might be, or how polite, attractive, or closely-related the server might be. A hatred of broccoli may be the only thing Mr. Bush and I have in common.

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