- Arts & Lifestyle
- Special Sections
- Community Directory
- Ticket Offers
New Minneapolis Public Schools nutrition director: "It better be a good cookie"
Get excited, foodie parents. Minneapolis Public Schools has a new nutrition director with big plans and an impressive resume. After a stint managing fancy hotels on the East Coast, Swiss-born Bertrand Weber helped introduce whole foods and scratch cooking to Hopkins’s now reputable school lunch program. Since 2006, he worked as nutrition director at Taher, an institutional food management company, while remaining active in the farm to school movement as an advisory board member for the National Farm to School Network.
Weber said he became interested in working with school lunch programs after his son was diagnosed with diabetes 14 years ago. The Daily Planet sat down with Bertrand Weber a week into his new job. Here’s what else he said:
TCDP: Under your leadership, Hopkins’ school lunches gained a reputation for including more healthy, locally sourced options. What lessons from Hopkins do you plan to bring to Minneapolis?
Operationally, [the districts] are so far apart. Hopkins had all operating kitchens. Each school had a full kitchen. So when we started making some changes, implementation was a little easier. Because Minneapolis Public Schools has been a pre-pack for so long, changes will take a little bit longer.
Last week, for example, we did an attempt of a casserole that used [Bemidji-based distributor] Indian Harvest multi-grain blend. So it had wheat berries, brown rice, wild rice and one more, and it was mixed with chicken, and it had fresh cilantro in it. It was really, really nice. But as a pre-pack, it looked terrible, so the kids looked at it and went “Uggh.”
There’s going to be a transition from a nutrition-slash-pre-pack to what we’re envisioning to be a culinary center-slash-central kitchen, that can still do centralized food here for the schools, but actually cooking the food rather than just packaging it. This is obviously not going to happen overnight. It’s going to require a lot of planning and some changes.
What challenges or opportunities come with delivering school lunch to a district as large and diverse as Minneapolis?
One of the goals that I have is really to partner with the community as much as possible. Whether it’s with local producers, with restaurants, with chefs – partnering not only to help us move forward but also looking for sponsors. And I think we have a tremendous opportunity to embrace the diversity within the school system and focus on that. You look at the Somali population – we need to embrace some of their food and expose some of the other students to it.
Native Americans have one of the highest rates of diabetes and obesity in the country, and they’re looking to go back to their roots. I know there’s a big push for native food. Well I don’t know anything about [Native] American cooking, but the community does.
What changes to the school lunch program can Minneapolis families look for in the next two years?
The first thing we’re going to look to do, and, again I’m going to look for partners and sponsors, is to do – I don’t want to call it a salad bar – a market cart, where we can feature local food or local ingredients during the growing season. Minnesota is blessed with the growing season while school is out, but there are also opportunities to perhaps freeze food.
I would like to partner with some of the local community gardens, so that they’re both a learning center for the kids and also an opportunity to get some of those foods in school. I’m exploring a truck farm or a couple of those truck farms, which is basically a flat bed. You run an old truck, maybe a donated truck, and basically you use the flat top, with dirt and everything else, and the goal is to bring the farm to the school.
We’re toying with the high schools doing more on-site, batch cooking and creating meal kits coming out of central kitchen. They don’t have the ability or the facilities to actually cook, but they can assemble kits at the school, so it’s still food that would be homemade food, that’s made at the central kitchen
I imagine cooking healthy food from scratch is more expensive than serving the processed stuff?
No, it actually costs less.
You buy processed chicken; you buy the processing. So raw ingredients are actually less expensive than processed. It requires more labor, but the end result from the food cost perspective and with the automation that this facility has, I really think it presents itself to not increasing food costs and yet increasing the amount of raw ingredients. There are several commodity programs out there.
But with the cost of labor?
I will venture to say it’s going to come out to be about even. You just have to switch how you use your labor and also re-train.
And I imagine there’d have to be some facility restructuring, right?
The district has already committed to making some of these changes. What this facility is lacking currently is ovens. There are no ovens.
The point is, we’re not reaching enough kids, [62.9 percent of Minneapolis students purchased school lunch in December 2011. Only 29.3 percent of students who did not qualify for free or reduced priced lunch participated.] and there are a couple factors. In the free and reduced population, maybe they’re not aware, or the food doesn’t match their ethnic taste, or they just don’t like it. It’s a combination, and we’ll have to explore that further.
Why is it only 20 percent of the paid students are participating? What is the barrier? I think the perception of the food is a huge one, and I mention that because I think reaching out to those communities to find out why, and being able to increase our participation from where it is now to where it could be, offers us the ability to perhaps make the necessary changes to move it forward.
Unlike Hopkins, where I went in there like a bull in a china cabinet and said, ‘Okay, that’s it. We’re changing,’ here we’re going to have to do it very strategically.
We have some schools where basically all they have is a banquet table, and they put the food on top of it. There are definitely challenges coming our way.
Describe your perfect school lunch.
A perfect school meal to me is what your grandma served. It’s the Sunday dinner.
There’s nothing wrong with a cookie. But what’s a cookie? A cookie is a treat. And if I close my eyes, and I think of what a cookie is, it’s wholesome butter, it's wholesome flour, some chocolate chips, some vanilla – that’s it. What’s wrong with it? What’s wrong with any of those ingredients? Now that’s if you make it. If you buy the processed cookies, that’s a whole different story.
I think we’re going to go back to include maybe more of the foods that have been removed, because they’re part of our life. A hot dog is a hot dog. What’s the all-American food? Hamburger and fries. Now do you eat hamburger and fries every day? No.
Healthy eating is not what you eat today. Healthy eating is the pattern that you develop over a period of time, and I think that’s what we need to teach kids, is that it’s okay to eat a cookie periodically but a cookie is not a meal. It’s a treat, and it’s gotta be a good cookie.
I want my phone to ring from the community, to help us move this program forward. I can’t do it alone. The more businesses and parents and whoever wants to get involved objectively and constructively and with resources, my door is wide open. But if it’s just to complain, that won’t do any good.
You can reach Bertrand Weber and Minneapolis school nutrition staff at 612-668-2820
© 2012 Alleen Brown