The students at Webster Elementary School, in Minneapolis Public Schools, don’t go through a traditional serving line at lunchtime. Instead, they sit at tables, get their food from communal serving plates and platters and dine off place settings instead of trays.
The family-style meal approach is unique in the 35,000-student district, at least for now, says Bertrand Weber, director of culinary and nutrition services.
At first glance, it would seem that a family-style service would make conforming to USDA school meal regulations about portions and components problematic, but Weber says not so.
“There was actually a guidance issued by USDA,” he explains. “You need to ensure that all five components are offered and that somebody is responsible to ensure that each child takes the necessary components to meet the minimum of the three.”
To enact that at Webster Elementary, there is one adult at each table who makes sure each child has the required components on his or her plate to constitute a reimbursable meal.
“In a way it’s very similar to going through a serving line, except that the serving line is in the middle of the table,” Weber quips.
Webster Elementary is located in a recently reopened and refurbished building. Currently it serves only children in grades K-2, but it will be adding a grade level or two annually. The enrollment is 96 this year, but it is expected to double next year to around 180. The school opened early in 2016.
The family-style service not only gives students a more communal dining experience but also teaches social skills such as table manners and responsibility. One student at each table is charged with setting out the plates, silverware, napkins and glassware. Others are assigned to cleanup.
The food is put onto the serving dishes by kitchen staff and these are then placed on carts and wheeled out to the tables. Students from each table then take the serving dishes from the cart and put them on their tables for dispensing.
Kitchen production procedures are not affected by the unique service style. The meals follow Minneapolis Schools’ K-8 onsite menu with the exception that the offerings that would be on a salad bar (which is standard at other school sites in the district) are rotated daily. Weber says this is necessary to minimize the waste that might otherwise occur if all traditional salad bar choices were placed on each table each day.
“They don’t have as many choices, but it’s more like what you would have at home. Parents don’t give you three choices—what’s on the table is what you eat!”
The food at Webster is prepared as it would be if it were going on a traditional serving line, except it goes into serving bowls and dishes rather than a stream table.
“We’re still in a very preliminary pilot stage with this,” Weber cautions. “The first week was challenging. What the principal envisioned and how the kids reacted was a little different,” he laughs.
Lessons learned in the first week involved portion control and waste reduction.
“It’s far from perfect at this point, but we are all very dedicated and want to make it work,” Weber says. “We think it’s a great, great model. The teachers like it and the students seem to be liking it. It’s creating a great social environment.”
Expansion of the program will depend on schools and principals being “100 percent willing” to implement it because it takes a commitment from the school staff to sit at the tables and oversee the food serving, Weber explains. At Webster, the staff was hired knowing that this would be part of their responsibilities.
“You know the expression, ‘It takes a village?’” Weber asks. “Well, this takes a village to make it work.”
Contact Mike Buzalka at [email protected]