If you’re like me, your memories of school lunch involve cardboard-y pizza, mystery meat, and gelatin dessert with non-dairy topping. Stop shuddering; I’ve got great news. The food now being served in Minneapolis Public Schools is not only Not Bad, it’s actually Very Good!
The pressure to improve school lunches gained national prominence in part due to British chef Jamie Oliver’s crusade to address obesity and food quality first in England and then in the United States. Small but significant changes have been happening for a while. Chocolate milk was taken off the menu last year because of its sugar content. Sugary cereals have been replaced with less-sweet, whole-grain options. Ketchup and ranch dressing are no longer available every day, only when they complement what’s on the menu.
More dramatic improvements in the school menu started happening earlier this year when Bertrand Weber became Minneapolis School District’s director of Nutrition Services. A 37-year veteran of the hospitality industry, he gained attention for the work he’d done to revamp lunches in the Hopkins schools. Over the past several months in Minneapolis, he and his team have added high-quality local foods to the menu, like Thousand Hills all-beef hot dogs, and local produce in season.
The menu even looks different, with rich colorful photos of food, highlighted local produce, and seasonal recipes. There are now items that sound like something you’d get at a locavore restaurant: Chicken Mole with brown rice and edamame succotash, or turkey/butternut-squash chili and cornbread. Apples and cabbage are the local foods featured for October; they appear in side dishes throughout the month. If your eaters are picky, like mine, don’t fret. There are still occasional burgers and pizza, but always with vegetables and fruit served alongside.
At my sons’ school, Marcy Open, the school nutritionist said the number of students ordering lunch was going up every day, and she had to keep adjusting her orders for the burgeoning demand. The overall numbers for Minneapolis are very positive, too. High school lunches are up 30%, and consumption of fruit and veggies has nearly doubled!
When I visited for lunch, I bought the penne pasta with Alfredo sauce. The vegetable on the side was steamed green beans, which I mixed into the penne to make my own version of hot dish. I shared my whole wheat bread stick with a boy sitting near us while my son devoured the pineapple chunks and downed the carton of milk I’d gotten. I had a green salad with tomato and local cucumbers with a bit of light dressing, and was full when lunch was dismissed after 30 minutes.
Thirty minutes is another positive change. Recent years have seen an attempt to cram recess AND lunch into a half hour. The kids barely have time to sit, much less chew and swallow. At Marcy Open, the recess and the lunch that follows are both 30 minutes—plenty of time to work the body, then feed it.
One of the lunchroom teachers told me how impressed she was by the recent changes. She said that the Sharing Table wasn’t getting as many unwanted lunch elements. Students really liked the jicama sticks from a previous week, and when students avoided a recent item called “breakfast skillet,” the teacher got on the microphone, listed the ingredients of eggs, potato, cheese, and broccoli, and asked them to just try it. Many of the doubters were won over.
Nutrition services has gotten a bad rap over the years, yet they’re one of the hardest working teams there is, navigating between USDA requirements, low cost, and high quality. My meal of penne, beans, salad, bread stick, fruit, and milk would cost a student $2; it cost me only $3.50. All breakfast is free, and free lunches are available to students who qualify. Where can you get a complete lunch with real food for these prices?
So if you or your students have avoided school lunch because of bad memories of the past, have a look at the menu and give it another try. Visit your child’s school and have lunch with them. I had some great conversations with my son’s friends while I was there. The more students who buy school lunch, the better school lunches get. And if they’ve come this far, I’m excited to see what they might become.