Lunch Lessons: A New Look at Lunch

By Beth Dooley

Photos by Morgan Sheff

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Kitchen Staff at Eisenhower Elementary preparing fresh veggies
(including radishes and greens from Riverbend Farm)

When it comes to school lunch programs, big names like Jamie Oliver are grabbing headlines with horror stories, but look no further than Hopkins Schools’ cafeterias for newsworthy solutions. Here the “lunch ladies” (and guys) are winning the war on Lunchables, one bite at a time. In Hopkins’ six elementary schools, two junior highs, and one high school, about 8,000 students are enjoying fresh local food and learning healthy habits.

Two years ago, Renewing the Countryside, a project that highlights efforts of rural  farmers, artists, and educators, organized a networking event for farmers and chefs at the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. There, Barb Mechura, Director of Nutrition Services for Hopkins Schools, met Greg Reynolds of Riverbend Farm in Delano and began breaking down the barriers of regulation and price, the bugaboos of institutional food. Mechura drew her cafeteria supervisors and cooks into subsequent meetings with Reynolds and together they worked out purchasing arrangements that met both menu cycles and budgets.

“Everyone (the administration and kitchen staff) was committed to making it work,” Reynolds says. “It wasn’t always easy, but they were creative and worked hard to get it done.” Current reimbursement rates allow only about $1.00 to be spent on food, the rest of the budget covers labor and kitchen supplies. Milk alone costs between $.17 and $.25 per carton, protein about $.50 per plate. This past school year, “Hopkins utilized some of their commodity entitlement dollars by spending $50,000 of it on fresh produce through the Department of Defense’s fresh produce program,” says Mechura. (Ironically, the school lunch program was initiated during WWI with the understanding that “good food was the first line of defense,” and inspired the Victory Gardens, to promote school kids to become “soldiers of the soil”.)  

“We worried that not using prepared foodservice products might increase our labor costs,” says Mechura. “But that was offset by lower raw ingredient costs. Plus, the food tasted so much better, there was less waste.”

“Recipe development at this level is tricky,” notes Tonya Christianson, Cook Supervisor, Alice Smith Elementary. “It’s hard to test a recipe for 300 servings and if it’s not right the first time you serve it, you don’t get a second chance.” Fresh food needs to be used right away, too. But when cooks saw that Riverbend’s potatoes on the potato bar actually got eaten, unlike those old spuds from a food service giant, they knew they were on to something good.

Mechura’s team worked on more than what to cook; they considered how to encourage healthy lifestyles. Meadowbrook and Gatewood Elementary Schools have scheduled recess before lunch so that students enter the cafeteria relaxed and hungry. They also eliminated unhealthy treats in birthday celebrations (nixing all those sugary, fatty cupcakes, cookies, and ice cream extravaganzas that seem to be omnipresent). At birthday celebrations, kids are feted with songs, cards, and notes.

Several years ago, Royal Cuisine took over the operation of all vending machines and concessions and nearly all of the items sold now meet the nutrition standards established by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. No junk food or artificial and highly sweetened beverages can be sold in any of the student areas. Salads, deli sandwiches, yogurt parfaits, and baked potatoes are offered in concession areas throughout the district. Whole grain products are featured in breakfasts, lunches, and snacks—muffins, breads, buns, pizza crusts, rice, pasta, tortillas, pancakes, cereals, and pita breads are predominantly whole grain.

Knowing that many of their students might resist the menu changes, Hopkins elementary schools initiated a Food Coaching program engaging parent volunteers in the cafeteria. The Food Coaches help younger students cut food up, open milk cartons, explain what’s on the tray and entice them to try new things. The first step was to simply entice the students to taste the great difference between fresh, local carrots and those orange bullets that come in bags. Last year, Riverbend’s multi-colored carrots (purple, red, white) became the “must have” student favorite. And cooks found that offering samples and using fun, silly names on the menu such as “X-ray Vision Carrots” and “Clever Corn” piques student interest. The coaches also help keep the short lunch period relatively calm.

The cafeteria staff worked with teachers to identify books with characters who grow food and enjoy home cooked meals. They have created posters of participating farms (Greg Reynolds on his tractor, for example), putting a friendly face on their plates. Greg has made guest appearances in the classroom for informal lessons in botany.

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Salad bar signage: Fresh from the farm, grown locally by Greg

This past year, Hopkins purchased 22,000 pounds of produce—carrots, tomatoes, peppers, radishes, squash, potatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, melons, cornmeal, eggplant, and onions,—from Riverbend Farm and other local growers. Other items included apples from Homestead Orchard, Maple Plain; grass-fed beef hot dogs from Thousand Hills Cattle Company, Cannon Falls; cheese curds from Castle Rock Dairy, Osseo, Wisconsin; and brown rice and black barley from Indianhead Harvest, Bemidji—all 10,000 miles fresher.

This engagement ignites the cooks’ creativity. “We get excited when those beautiful eggplants come in,” says Elizabeth Anderson, Cook Supervisor, Gatewood Elementary.

“Our ratatouille is so good, we’ve made believers out of staff that say they don’t like eggplant or zucchini,” notes Mechura.  The school cooks’ jobs now mean far more than “heat and serve.” Happily, unlike many other school systems that removed their appliances, Hopkins schools have maintained their kitchens and the staff has always known how to cook. Many cooks were wary of the gradual acceptance of highly processed foodservice products and are glad to see that trend being reversed. They consider preparing meals from scratch the best part of their job, both creative and challenging.

Andrew Karr, Cook Supervisor, North Junior High, a former restaurant cook says, “I get far more satisfaction from my work knowing I’m serving kids healthy nutritious food and making a difference in the experience kids have during the day at school. I trust this is teaching them how to make good choices.”

Janet Franks, Cook Supervisor, Tanglen Elementary adds, “It’s worth the extra effort it takes to serve good fresh food when you realize that after a good lunch, these students may go back to their classrooms happier and more settled, more attentive.”

Several schools planted gardens this past spring. Reynolds donated seedling plants and will visit as students care for their plots, and several classes will take field trips out to Riverbend Farm. The school plans to use the garden produce in the school meal programs this summer.

But, schools can only do so much; they need support at home too. “Many of these kids, not just in Hopkins, but across the country, don’t eat real food at home. Some of them don’t eat home-cooked dinners so it’s no wonder they resist fresh, scratch cooking,” notes June Lezon, Kitchen Supervisor, West Junior High. The Food Coaches have helped ease the transition among younger students, but support for eating healthy is needed at home.  

“Sure it’s much easier to stop at McDonalds, but it takes very little time to boil potatoes and sauté a chicken breast for a real meal.” Parents model behavior for their kids, and herein lies a key issue. Consider the mom in a recent parent meeting who pulled a Diet Coke out of her handbag while criticizing a school menu. That said, plenty of parents are resonating with Hopkins’ good-tasting efforts and choosing to send their kids to those schools.

“We had one dad attending a kindergarten meeting who had already made up his mind that his child would not be eating school lunch. In the end—after asking a lot of questions about our menus, food supply, and recipes—he decided he would allow his child to eat school meals because of our more holistic, natural approach to menu planning and purchasing,” says Mary Thies, Royal Cuisine Training Manager.

Educating the whole child means teaching more than the three Rs, and for its lessons in the lunchroom, Hopkins gets an A. But there is homework we all can do. Here are some ways parents and the community can help:

Volunteer. Many school cafeteria programs welcome extra hands. Cafeterias can be congested, undersized, and hectic, making it difficult for young children to focus on eating a healthy meal. Studies show that good eating habits and patterns that are established at a young age will carry into adolescence and adulthood.

Get involved in the school garden, especially in the summer. When school’s out, these fledgling efforts need people to weed and water until the classes are back in session.

Raise money. School kitchens (those left that have them) are undersized and under-equipped to produce meals from scratch. The kitchen setup and equipment required for scratch cooking are very different than those used for reheating manufactured foods; the cost of remodeling and retrofitting a school kitchen is one of the most expensive (and often prohibitive) costs given today’s stressed school budgets.

What is happening in Hopkins extends far beyond the lunchroom. The purchasing power of Hopkins Schools provides a healthy income stream to nearby farms, meat producers, dairies and mills. Healthy kids plus thriving farms, add up. This is good for us all.

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