Illustration by Darren Gygi
When I first visited Minneapolis Public Elementary Schools nearly a decade ago to choose one for my kids, I was appalled by the cafeteria choices: sugar-saturated cereals for breakfast, pre-packaged French Toast “stix” with syrup for lunch, and chocolate- or strawberry-flavored milk.
We hadn’t gotten there overnight. During the 1970s and ’80s, many schools in larger districts across the U.S. moved away from their kitchens in favor of receiving packaged food prepped in mass quantities at central facilities. Add in budget and staffing restrictions, and the challenges of getting fresh food to school kids became formidable.
Today, though, the offerings on one day’s Minneapolis Public Schools lunch menu include: fresh fruit, a salad bar, even quinoa. The foods are free of artificial food dyes, artificial sweeteners, even most antibiotics and hormones used in livestock.
Much of the change can be credited to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act signed into law by President Obama in 2010. As the first real national reform to the school lunch and breakfast program in 30 years, it heightened nutritional requirements and allocated federal funds for increased free meals for children in need.
Skeptics have been critical (tweeting pictures of lunches with small portion sizes to Michelle Obama, a champion of the act), but health advocates call the measure a landmark public health victory. Research indicates that schools are meeting nutrition goals, and that children living in or near poverty are seeing better outcomes. A recent study out of Harvard says that the updated nutrition standards will prevent nearly 2 million cases of childhood obesity by 2025.
There’s still enough opposition to HHFKA, though, that it’s not clear whether Congress will reauthorize the act when it expires this month. Bertrand Weber, director of culinary and wellness services in Minneapolis Public Schools, is concerned about shortsightedness on the national and local levels. “School district administrators often don’t recognize the correlation between health and well being and academic performance,” he says. “It’s not rocket science to know that if you eat well and exercise, you will feel better, sleep better, and learn better.”
Although some fear a lack of reauthorization would send school lunch programs into the pre-packaged past, many schools in Minnesota were early adopters of the changes and are unlikely to shift course regardless of politics or federal mandates.
One factor is the national Farm to School movement, which entered the scene about 10 years ago in 18 school districts in Minnesota and now reaches more than half of them. Its goal of providing resources to match up state farmers with local food districts is touted as both a health and economic benefit. In one recent example, the St. Paul Public Schools sourced food from the Hmong American Farmers Association and paired it with a cultural curriculum developed by Farm to School, combining nutrition with education.
School gardens are proliferating as well. Kids are husking corn to send to school cafeterias in Foley; a new scratch kitchen in Dover-Eyota has a machine that peels root vegetables grown in their school garden; and the Minneapolis school system just hired a school garden coordinator. In many ways, the habit of eating healthy at school has developed into an expectation that will spur further creative solutions.
These days, one Minneapolis Public Schools executive chef is testing out a batch of barley butternut squash risotto (inspired by the restaurant Victory 44) that he’s considering for this fall’s menu. We’ve come a long way from the days when school-lunch regulators proposed counting ketchup as a vegetable, and there are good things ahead. MPS has committed funds so that in the next seven years, every school will again have its own working kitchen, serving up real food to promote childhood health and wellness.