When Bertrand Weber joined the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) in 2012, the district’s school meal program consisted mainly of prepackaged items purchased from vendors. There was little actual onsite cooking done, if only because many schools lacked kitchens with any production capability.
Today, cooking is being done both at a new central production facility and at an increasing number of school sites, thanks to a major upgrade program initiated by Weber and supported by the district administration.
Weber characterizes this commitment to a kitchen in every school as his most satisfying personal win “because it was something almost no one believed could happen.”
The daily school meal menu now includes not only fresh fruits and vegetables from salad bars at almost all locations, but also a growing amount of what’s served is made by MPS staff at either its new central production Nutrition Center or in individual school kitchens.
At one high school a prototype food court opened earlier this year, portend of what Weber plans for the district’s other secondary school sites to attract the teenaged customers with an environment and meal choices designed to appeal to them.
Ingredients for the meals being served across the district are now coming not just from the standard suppliers that serve the K-12 market but also from a growing number of local producers. MPS currently has forward contracts with 14 local farms and 80 percent of its turkey needs are supplied by a local firm.
So far, all that farm-to-school produce had been diverted to a facility operated by an outside company for washing and processing, but now the department will be able to process some of it in-house at its new Nutrition Center, which is now nearly complete, will allow the district to bring a lot of production in-house in an efficient way.
“We’re expanding our abilities of producing bulk items and also kind of becoming our own processor,” Weber says. “We’ll have a vegetable and fruit processing area where we’ll be able to slice and dice items for salad bars instead of having to buy them. We’re also going to process much of our mirepoix items like celery, carrots, onions and peppers that we currently buy from our produce processor.”
The Nutrition Center will also make all of the district’s salad dressings, salsa, hummus and dips in both bulk and individually portioned packaging. It will also produce both bulk salads and the district’s branded line of True Food Express individually portioned upscale packaged salads sold at the secondary school sites.
Also on tap to be brought in-house is the processing of turkey that until now had to be purchased preprocessed. “We’ll be able to actually cook our own turkeys in our new sous vide machine, dice it and then send that out to the elementary schools with gravy for turkey and gravy,” Weber explains.
Not everything will be made in the Nutrition Center, however. Weber wants some items made in the individual kitchens both for freshness and merchandising purposes. Thoe will include rice, pastas, potatoes as well as some proteins and produce items.
“We’ll want to do any meats that need roasting, such as chicken, at the schools, as well as all our vegetables as were really focusing on roasting versus steaming them because kids really seem to go for them that way,” Weber says.
While the Nutrition Center is mostly complete, the school kitchen program is only entering the second year of a six-year schedule. Previously, upgrades had been performed on a “patchwork” basis, but now Weber has a full commitment from the district for a comprehensive upgrade schedule.
Currently, all seven district high schools are cooking onsite to some degree, though only two have been renovated with new kitchens. The renovation schedule remains in flux, dependent on multiple factors ranging from site locations to the extent of the work required, but Weber is confident the six-year schedule will accommodate all the different levels of need.
The recently debuted food court is located in the brand-new Southwest High School, a circumstance that allowed Weber’s department to plan the venue without retrofitting it into an existing space.
However, its full debut is being held off until this coming fall.
“It was a soft opening this year,” Weber says. “The full launch of the food court will take place next year as we finished the year using last year’s menu because we’ll need additional staffing and some changes in the infrastructure.”
The next food court is a year away, he adds, “and we have yet to sit down with the design plan. Because Southwest was brand new, we were able to lay it out the way we wanted but another location will not be brand new so we’ll have to operate within the spaces they have.”
However, he emphasizes, the idea is to have the same station concepts at all the food court locations for the sake of efficiency. “Maybe some won’t have all the concepts open at the same time, but it will still be the same food definitely.”
Much farther along is the salad bar program, which is now in place in all but six schools, “and we’ll be down to five next year,” Weber says. “After that we’ll have to wait for actual kitchen updates because at the remaining schools we won’t be able to put in salad bars unless there is some renovation that takes place.”
As an example of the obstacles at the sites, he notes that at one school students have to walk up onto an old stage with a makeshift kitchen and then they go down the other side to get their food. At some other sites, a truck must deliver clean utensils and pans daily because it lacks warewashing capability.
Where the salad bars have been implemented, they have made a big impact, Weber says. “They helped get kids off prepack and empowered them to try all kinds of new fruits and vegetables, and that’s huge.”
Also new starting this fall will be regular visits by the district’s food truck to the high schools, offering a menu of choices developed by members of the MPS True Food Chef Council, a group of 22 local chefs and restaurateurs who work with Weber and his team not just on recipe development but also the promotion of the MPS nutrition program in the community, such as through a recent Junior Iron Chef Challenge in which six local chefs teamed with a dozen junior high students in a culinary contest.
“It’s really about community involvement,” Weber offers. “The foods we serve in the schools are part of the local food movement and the chefs are part of that movement. We are the community and so are they.”
Local companies and the Chef Council have also aided the MPS nutrition program with financial support, including a $650,000 grant from Life Time Foundation that enabled the revival of the central kitchen and pruning of unnecessary stock. There was also a grant from Cargill for a walk-in cooler needed for the increased bulk production, the contributions from General Mills toward a chiller tank for the sous vide kettles and a series of Chef Council fundraisers that enabled the purchase and installation of six salad bars.
Weber had been a restaurant manager and food and beverage director before taking on the challenges of K-12 foodservice. He started as director of nutrition services with the Hopkins School District, near Minneapolis, where he transformed the dining program, winning an FM Best Concept Award in the process. He then spent six years with school nutrition specialist Taher Inc. as director of culinary, wellness and nutrition standards before taking on the Minneapolis challenge.
“I think we’re on track, but just like in any business, every time you raise the bar that becomes the norm, so you constantly have to look at being innovative,” he says. “Because if you don’t, you start to stagnate and start falling behind, and kids respond quickly to their food environment. So we need to be ahead of the curve, and that’s an ongoing challenge we have.”