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Institutional Dining: A Snapshot of School Lunch Programs

The real lunch ladies (as opposed to ladies who lunch): left to right, Laurie P. (Little Canada), Kelly T. (Harambee), Bonnie H. (RAHS), Tammy K. (RAHS), Stacey G. (RAHS/St. Rose).

School lunch trays are the low hanging fruit of disdain and the butt of endless jokes in American cookery. Anyone who ever grew up on a hot lunch program usually has little good to say about partitioned Formica trays, unless it happened to be pizza day. 

Even the misguided memory of the stoic, grizzled lunch lady presides over our memory with a graceless caricature: She’s unamused, hairnetted and wields her gruel-filled ladle with mercenary velocity. 

Mocking the kitchen behind the public school lunchroom is at the very least, unfair. Because while far from perfect, it’s safe to say no two lunchrooms are the same, not even within the same district. And from city to city, and state to state, they vary so wildly as to be indistinguishable as the same category.  Poor school lunch. 


The challenge

To make matters yet more complicated, along came 2010, with the Obama administration’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which imposed new, stricter standards on public school lunches. With districts across the country already stretched thin for dollars, time and just about every other resource, those who could afford them hired registered dietitians to oversee the quagmire that is the American school lunch tray. 

Angela Richie is one of those dietitians currently overseeing Roseville area schools. Not only does she preside over the task of sorting rigorous USDA guidelines including sodium, calorie and fat counts, she must constantly unravel the tangled web that is the federal school lunch program—a Gargantua of federal funding, labor woes, processed food companies, aging equipment and countless other details that must be sorted before feeding an individual child. 

The New York Times in its 2014 article, "How School Lunch Became the Latest Political Battleground," called the average school-nutrition director “not unlike the chief executive of a medium-size catering business, but with a school for a landlord and a menu regulated by the government.”  Whoa. 


A not-so-average Thursday lunch 

The best way to access the popularity of a meal is to check the trashcans after lunch.

To get a glimpse, Richie invited me to lunch on a recent monthly “Minnesota Thursday” at Roseville Middle School, one of only nine local school districts going through curriculum to incorporate scratch-made, locally raised products onto lunch trays though the St. Paul-based Good Acre Farm to School Grant. 

Richie is making the rounds today at participating schools to see how things are sussing out. On today’s menu (next to the vegetarian option of a packaged WOWBUTTER—soybutter—and jelly sandwich) are Cannon Falls farm-raised, all-natural Ferndale turkey thighs; St. Cloud-based Pan-O-Gold whole grain dinner rolls and Maple Sage Roasted Delicata Squash from Northfield.

There is nothing banal about this day. According to Emily Paul, director of programs at Good Acre, the work of getting locally grown, scratch-cooked meals in front of public school kids is nothing short of “cutting edge.” 

She should know. She co-wrote the grant that is allowing this meal to be served at Roseville Middle School today, which includes culinary training to school lunch staff like those in Richie’s district and the ones serving the meals today. Richie learned of the program while taking a sourdough class at Good Acre, a food hub offering commercial kitchen rental for small food businesses, public cooking classes and a Community Supported Agriculture program.


Why classes? 

“If I see you using your knife with your finger across the top I’m going to come around and cut it off!” 

She’s kidding, of course, but Paul is not just teaching these lunch ladies (a term she uses as an endearment) about today’s menu of Kohlrabi Oven Fries with Herb Yogurt Dipping Sauce and Apple Cider Braised Cabbage, but also basic kitchen skills. While some school kitchen workers come to work with kitchen fundamentals, many do not. The pervasiveness of processed and packaged food in school lunches often renders those skills unnecessary, further complicating Richie’s and Paul’s work as they strive to put tastier, more nutritious food on lunch trays. 

“I heat up food,” said one class attendee, when asked whether she was a cook. But in the classroom, all of the attendees seem to be reveling in the irresistible joy of immersion blending homemade ranch dressing and shredding kohlrabi into slaw. 

“The ones who love it, really love it,” says Richie. 


Back at school 

But back at school, the outcomes are not always simple. The turkey thighs smell fantastic, but the kitchen did not take delivery of enough Delicata Squash to serve the 700 kids who will go through the line today, so while the student council is offering samples in paper portion cups along with “I tried it!” stickers, full portions are not available on the line. Perhaps not the end of the world, as lots of kids are looking at the samples with skepticism anyway, and there are few glowing reviews. 

“One of the most truthful feedback sources is our garbage cans,” says Richie. And indeed, as we stand behind the wheeled barrels with commingling food aromas emanating from them, lots of apples and unopened milk cartons go sailing in (kids are required to take a half cup of fruit, along with 3/4 cup of vegetables and one cup of dairy in addition to grains and protein— the latter two items being the easiest “sell”). A fair number of turkey thighs go sailing in with them. 

“It’s heartbreaking when you prepare all of this and they don’t like it,” says Michelle Frison, who has been managing this kitchen for more than 25 yeas. If the USDA guidelines get loosened with the new presidential administration as is rumored, she thinks it would be a good thing. 

“I’m here to make sure they have food in their stomachs,” she says. “Even if it’s a little more salt, a little more sugar.” 


The re-do reality 

And kids being kids, they’ll eat what they like, and not what they don’t. In other words, no matter how much local squash and turkey you put in front of a kid, pizza day is still very popular. 

But Jenny Breen, who co-teaches the Good Acre classes with Paul, says the above scenario is not always the case, and says she’s seen kids “chow down” on things like Brussels sprouts. But getting those fresh Brussels on the plate is difficult. Really difficult. “It’s like trying to turn the Titanic,” says Breen. 

But at least in Minnesota, it’s a ship guided by some bright lighthouses. “This [program] is light years beyond other states,” says Paul, back in the classroom. 

“If there’s anything I would want people to know is that there are many passionate individuals behind the scenes trying to change things,” says Richie. 

Back in line, a boy grouses about the whole-grain bun. Then he takes a bite. “Mmm. It’s good,” he says. Genuinely, happily surprised. 

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