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Salad days in Minneapolis Schools: Leafy greens are making their mark

With the help of the True Food Chef Council, top culinary talents are transforming school lunch — one step at a time.

Chef Bertrand Weber shown at the Nutrition Services building on Plymouth Avenue in Minneapolis.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley

A couple of weeks ago when Sanford Middle School debuted its new, cooked fresh, on-site lunch, the center of the plate was chicken. Not a nugget, not a patty, just a piece of roasted chicken, hot from the oven and on a compostable plate.

Accustomed to limp plastic packets of food, lots of kids wouldn’t eat it. So eighth-grader Oscar Booth, who seems to be something of a ringleader, cleaned all four of the plates that went untouched by the classmates at his table. 

Word spreads quickly on the middle-school grapevine. One day last week, Booth volunteered to finish off his friends’ teriyaki chicken, but got no takers. Nor was anyone at his table willing to fork over the salads they had composed from a brand-new salad bar.

With the help of the True Food Chef Council — more than two dozen top culinary talents — Minneapolis Public Schools Culinary and Nutrition Services is transforming lunch into a chef-driven experience.

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Indeed, foodies might notice MPS recipes on some high-end menus hereabouts. They really are that tasty. And a portion of the proceeds often goes to meet the cost of retrofitting lunchrooms so the long-stymied chefs who work in them can actually cook.

This was Director Bertrand Weber’s secret plot from the start. Two years ago Weber, a veteran of high-end kitchens here and abroad, was coaxed into taking over MPS’ food service.

Long story short, experience had made Weber something of an evangelical when it comes to getting food with integrity into schools. MPS has huge numbers of students living in food deserts — neighborhoods where dinner comes from the corner mini-mart.

That’s not all. The district’s central commissary had no real kitchen. And Weber would only get new money to play with by attracting more diners. But he had a name, and a hunch that top kitchen talent would be easily smitten with the challenge of getting fresh food into schools.

“The first meeting we had, there were 30 chefs there,” says Weber. “It was the Who’s Who of the Twin Cities. And they just wanted to be told what to do. 

Egging on the kids

Weber asked for money and enthusiasm. In response, his colleagues divided up the first four schools he wanted to overhaul. They organized fund-raisers and, when the counters where plastic packets once sat had been transformed into buffet stations and salad bars, they showed up in lunchrooms to host tastings. 

“Basically, they were egging them on to try the food,” says Weber.

This week, several schools are scheduled to taste-test an apple-kale salad. Past tastings include a Moroccan bean salad and a Somali chicken dish. A Hmong entrée will appear in the rotation at some point.

Two years ago, 100 percent of MPS food was pre-packed at the central commissary. Today, seven high schools and five elementary schools are cooking on site, and 26 schools have salad bars. Four middle schools are being converted.

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No soggy broccoli

At Sanford, kitchen coordinator Nancy Susag is seeing new kids in the lunch line — and grown-ups, too. Her staff has doubled to keep up with demand. And she has ovens and coolers and the capacity to pair teriyaki chicken with broccoli that retains some crunch.

The salad bar has standbys like canned peaches and applesauce, but there are greens and cold salads made from grains and legumes. The unfamiliar salads are served all week to allow time for the grapevine to do its work and tempt kids into trying them.

The lunchroom is pleasant and orderly, with Assistant Principal Vernon Rowe — who might double as a stand-up comic — calling kids up to the kitchen by table. He devoured the teriyaki chicken, he tells the kids, turning sideways and puffing out his midsection to an exaggerated degree. 

A table over from Oscar Booth, Mohamed Dagane is tucking into the day’s cold grain offering, a mix of rice and other grains with dried fruit and a vinaigrette. He seems shocked to hear it referred to as a salad, but quickly shrugs and goes back to eating it.

Consumption of leafy greens and vegetables is up by nearly a third at schools that have gotten salad bars. Much of the produce is locally grown

At another table, two young men in impeccable ties are sticking with their home lunches. “I only eat food made by a chef,” explains one. 

Would it surprise them to hear that this was made by a chef? “Well, then we’re vegetarians,” supplied his lunch companion.

Lacking a sink

Like so many facets of Weber’s plan, it’s a process. He’s run out of kitchens that can be overhauled easily for the installation of a salad bar. The remainder require costly changes to basic infrastructure. Unbelievably, many have no sink, for instance.

And for now, every single nickel has been spent. “We’re completely tapped out,” says Weber. “We’re going to use the rest of this year to fine-tune what we’ve done.” 

His efforts were recognized last month by the School Nutrition Association at its annual Child Nutrition Industry Conference.

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Hats off to the chefs 

Meanwhile, the Chefs Council is raising more money. Some members have tacked on a little more to the price of a restaurant salad, explaining to diners where the extra cash would go. A number are showcasing new recipes like Asian turkey burgers with Farmdale Market turkey and Thousand Hills hot dogs on their kids’ menus.

Some of the proceeds from Chefs Night Off, a regular evening of hands-on cooking demonstrations by chefs at Kitchen in the Market in the Midtown Global Exchange, will also go to the effort.

And that word-of-mouth business should help, too. Minneapolis has relatively few full-fee-paying families, and the cost of even their meals is subsidized by the state and federal governments. As the number of kids eating school lunch goes up, so will Weber’s budget.

One step at a time. “Schools did not create this, society created this,” he says. “It takes a village to raise a child? Well, it’s going to take a community to change a food system and the way we feed our kids.”