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School Lunch

One of the great parenting dilemmas is that while it is often faster to do certain things yourself, it is much better to involve the kids. The prime example of this for me is making marinara sauce. I don’t want to brag, but I am much better at getting a can of tomatoes into a pot than children are, and I never splash tomatoes on the walls, which speeds cleanup. 

But my ultimate goal is to send my kids into the world with life skills — including cooking basics and the ability (and willingness) to choose healthy foods most of the time. When it comes to parenting, sometimes the only way out is through.

Dinner-parenting can be hard, what with tired parents and hungry children trying to squeeze in a meal between all the extracurriculars and bedtime. But lunch-parenting is even harder. 

Sure, you can teach your kids to make their own reasonably healthy lunches. But once they’re at school, there’s nothing to prevent them from tossing their home-packed, healthy Brussels sprouts in favor of any extra candy corn that friends might have. 

And if they’re eating a school lunch featuring chicken nuggets, corn dogs, and French-toast sticks, all bets are off. 

School lunch — that beleaguered cuisine — is challenging no matter your vantage point. To get the perspective of a parent who has successfully elevated the noontime meal experience for many kids, I called up one of the best school-lunchers I know: Bertrand Weber, culinary and nutrition services director for Minneapolis Public Schools. 

Weber started hanging around lunchrooms when his son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and wanted to continue eating school lunch with his friends. That experience, along with his background in fine dining and boutique hotels, convinced Weber that the school cafeteria represented one of the best opportunities to improve kids’ diets. 

When the school district hired him in 2012, however, he came face to face with the daunting realities such programs confront. “I didn’t understand how much regulation school food departments are under,” Weber recalls. 

Public schools must adhere to USDA guidelines regarding sodium maximums, protein minimums, whole-grain requirements, and various calorie ranges for children in grade school, middle school, and high school. 

“We get paid for every meal we serve, just like in a restaurant,” Weber adds. On average, including local, state, and federal subsidies, Minneapolis Public Schools has only about $3.10 to produce each meal. This allocation has to cover not just food costs, but labor, facilities, utilities — everything. 

If you’re doing the math in your head and trying to remember the last time you paid $3.10 for a meal, you’ve begun to grasp why creating a healthy school lunch is complicated. 

Salad Days

Another big challenge for Weber was the infrastructure he had to work with. When he came on board, most school buildings in the district no longer featured full kitchens where cooks could make meals from scratch. (To reduce costs, the district was distributing individually packaged meals produced in central commissaries.)

So, with funding from the Life Time Foundation and other corporate partners, Weber and his team installed salad bars in nearly every school. Today the district works with 14 local farms that provide more than 200,000 pounds of produce a year. 

But every parent knows the real challenge is getting kids to actually eat from the salad bar.

 “We got pushback from parents who said, ‘The kids won’t want healthy food!’” Weber recalls. “Well, we don’t find that to be true. We find that kids will eat food that tastes good.” 

Weber and his team loaded the salad bars with fresh-cut vegetables and fruits — carrots, bananas, grapes, and strawberries — as well as other healthy whole foods with kid appeal. They introduced a roasted-beet-and-chickpea hummus based on a recipe from a local farm-to-table restaurant, and kids are so drawn to the flamingo-pink dip that it’s now one of the most popular items in the salad bar. Weber likes to serve it with slices of bright watermelon radish, each circle like a sunburst. 

“I wouldn’t say we get a line around the block for the radishes,” he says, “but kids will eat them because they’re pretty and not so strong tasting as a typical radish.” 

If you can get a first grader to eat one radish slice topped with hummus, you might eventually have a high school senior comfortable with eating a vegetable-rich diet. 

Lunch-Parenting Made Easier

Weber encourages parents overwhelmed by the school-lunch dilemma to actually visit their kids’ schools. He recalls one of his own children complaining that the lunchroom had no good food, only “rotten oranges.” So he investigated — and (surprise) couldn’t find a single rotten orange. 

“There are a lot of misconceptions about foods served in schools,” Weber admits. “Parents should, at a bare minimum, go with their kids and see what is being served. A lot of districts are doing a wonderful job.” 

And if you should visit and discover a less-than-wonderful job? Weber recommends pursuing an honest and open dialogue as the most important first step toward improving school-lunch options. 

“Have conversations with your school’s food-service director,” he says. It doesn’t have to be confrontational. You can seek to discover what challenges the director may be facing and brainstorm ways you or a larger group of parents might be able to help. 

Sure, it would be faster and easier to not investigate your kids’ school-lunch situation. But who knows? Keep taking the difficult path, and one day you may find your kid teaching you a few things about school lunch — including how good watermelon radishes and beet hummus can really taste.

Illustration by: Paul Hostetler

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