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Institutional Dining: The Future of School Lunch

Students Kelsie Hoffman, Sydney Schuster and Morgan Pool show off one of their scratch prepared meals.

Some years ago I got into trouble after writing a story about school lunch programs where I portrayed “lunch ladies” of an era gone by in a less-than-positive light. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the school lunch hour was nothing short of a battleground for a shy kid with, well, discerning tastes. 

A pastel sheet of paper was distributed monthly with the corresponding month’s menu: One menu, no choices, no allowances for dietary restrictions or preferences. Kids in the lunch line were to be seen and not heard, and maybe it’s the way the imagination tends to fill in blanks over a 30-year span, but my “lunch ladies” (Mrs. Kaiser and Mrs. Tercott, I’ll never forget) loom large in my mind as dragon ladies on a mean-spirited mission. 

Maybe it wasn’t all that bad. Smooth (reconstituted) scoops of mashed potato with a pond of gravy weren’t half bad, nor were the (frozen) cheeseburgers. And I’d trade dinner at a fancy spot for a Fiestada right about now (currently made with 51 percent whole-grain crust to satisfy school lunch nutritional guidelines). 

ProStart student, Max Barnett, checks on consistency.

But school lunch mimicking fast food is the nemesis of any forward-thinking school culinary director, regardless of grain percentages. “Plain old food,” or “True food” is the way Minneapolis Public Schools Culinary Director Bertrand Weber has described his ongoing school cafeteria transition, turning cafeterias into “real kitchens.” 

Family-submitted recipes, family-style dining, vegan options, halal menus and beyond are all finding their way into public school lunches, a far cry from folding cafeteria tables with the stools attached, and “fish sticks with catsup” or “fruited gelatin” (actual bi-weekly menu items from a 1974 Houston-based lunch menu). 

While not an official part of their school lunch program, but rather considered an educational experience and amenity to the school, Elk River High School runs a working 90-seat restaurant as part of its ProStart program, where students run every aspect of the kitchen and dining room, down to learning true restaurant-designed point-of-sale systems. 

Hallway Cafe —“and it’s not just a few tables in a hallway,” says the program’s educator, Monique Sabby — is only open for three of the four lunch periods at the school, and is offered as an amenity or add-on to regular school lunch. But they still operate under USDA nutrition standards for school meals. And, according to Sabby, her students were more game to phase in the guidelines—the restaurant has been a part of the school since the 1990s when they were not required to operate under the standards—than even she was. 

“They were like, ‘OK, we can do this!’ I seriously think my kids should have degrees in nutrition,” she says. 

As in all school nutrition programs, every ingredient of every recipe is analyzed for sugar, fat and sodium content, and adjusted accordingly to suit national standards. And according to Sabby, since implementing the guidelines, students are more likely, not less, to insist on scratch cooking. 

“They say, ‘We’re not going to open a package to implement a guideline, because that’s just not right,’” she says.

Menu items at the cafe have included fried rice, fresh fruit smoothies, “Chicken Chipotle Melts,” flatbread pizzas, even balsamic glazed lamb shanks with vegetable ragout and polenta as a collaboration with Chef Seth Bixby Daugherty, who is currently executive chef at Seven Steakhouse and Sushi in Minneapolis.

School culinary programs can be a quagmire of red tape, budgets, dietitians and contracts, and at present, Hallway Cafe has no plans to take the place of Elk River’s traditional school lunch program. But ProStart culinary students Tayor VanHoutan and Sarah Johnson, both of whom have culinary aspirations beyond high school, say they don’t see why a program such as Hallway Cafe couldn’t become the future of school lunch. Both say the experience of having a hand in cooking their own food has had a profound impact on the way they eat, cook at home and the way they perceive food in general. 

Taylor Kline and Chef Josh Brown. Mentor chefs, like Brown, are important to ensuring students get the real-life experience from someone who makes their living working in professional kitchens.

Sabby says menus from the 1990s that include chicken wings and French fries are almost shocking to her students. “And it does seem archaic, to tell you the truth,” she adds. 

Johnson, a senior in her third year of participating in the program, says she’s learned that cooking is not all that hard, after all: “When you break down [a recipe] it’s not as difficult as it looks, and it’s actually a fun challenge.” 

And VanHoutan says that the Hallway Cafe model could “absolutely” be a possibility for school lunch programs of the future. In fact, the people behind Hallway Café have been approached by large food distribution companies wondering how they went about preparing, say, pizza, under the USDA nutrition standards for school meals. 

While it seems like school lunches in other countries get all the love—Japanese students already serve each other as a matter of course, French students get ratatouille and salmon, in Uruguay kids learn to milk cows—Minneapolis is an acutely forward-thinking American district. In addition to transitioning 36 of 40 schools in the district to fully functioning kitchens (as opposed to cafeterias that once opened pre-packaged product) and adding a nutrition center where scratch food is made daily (all salad dressings, hummus, spaghetti sauce, tabouleh, ancient grains salads, much more), Weber has his own ideas for the future. And it’s a big idea. 

“We need to change how we see this food—removing this stigma about school food. That our food is truly an extension of food in general, and not just this ‘school food,’” he says, adding that he’ll know we’ve arrived at that point when something like the Farm to School program is no longer called “Farm to School,” it’s just considered “food.” 

Weber is currently working in collaboration with the True Food Council, a partnership between Minneapolis Culinary & Nutrition Services and the restaurant culinary community to implement an Urban Educational Farm program to reconnect students with the food system in a more hands-on way. And while hands-on cooking programing is not a part of the Minneapolis school system as of now, Weber’s team works with student focus groups on a roughly weekly or bi-weekly basis. He says students are extremely respectful and excellent to work with, but unfortunately, there is still plenty of misconceptions about what goes into school food. 

“We have to convince them that yes, the chicken you eat at school is the same chicken your parents buy from Byerlys,” he says. 

What will it take to knit together the stigma of school lunches past and the vision of “just food” that’s an integral part of a child’s existence? 


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