In St. Paul, kids love school lunches, thanks to boss lunch lady Jean Ronnei. She has earned national honors for her innovations.
Jean Ronnei plunked herself next to her most important critics on Thursday morning -- a gaggle of giggling first-graders. She wanted to know what they thought about the new Tater Tot hot dish, the latest addition to St. Paul public schools' lunch menu.
A definite "thumbs-up," proclaimed the little girls, all of Hmong heritage. Melting on their faces was evidence that they loved the accompanying orange Push-Ups dessert, too.
Ronnei, the district's director of nutrition, who has just been named the nation's Golden School Foodservice Director of the Year, was happy to hear it. "We want to be sure the food we offer is good for all kids," she said.
School lunch has never been boring under Ronnei's watch. In her 17 years with the St. Paul School District she has consistently introduced lunch fare that's not only healthy but that also gets gobbled up.
One day Hmong kids try hot dish; the next day kids of German or Scandinavian ancestry eat Hmong fried beef rice with scallions and cilantro, Thai peanut noodles or Mexican pinto beans with tamales. It's a quest to educate kids about the district's many cultures.
This month she received the award at the School Nutrition Association's Child Nutrition Industry Conference in Tucson, Ariz., besting 72 other nominees.
Ronnei, 52, was nominated for the award by someone familiar with the territory, Jo Ellen Miner, the retired director of nutrition for Minneapolis public schools.
"A lot of districts don't make the effort to involve the parents and students like Jean does," said Miner. "Jean is innovative in her sensitivity to diversity."
The district's 41,000 students come from around the globe and speak more than 70 languages and dialects, so Ronnei has been on a decadelong mission to ensure that kids recognize -- and more important, eat -- the food they're offered.
And even though each meal can cost no more than $1, she's relentless about incorporating healthy stuff such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables into every meal.
This week, she and her staff decided to investigate sources for goat and lamb meat, Muslim staples that must be processed according to strict religious guidelines.
Nearly 85 per cent of St. Paul's students, from elementary through high school, participate in the lunch program each day. That compares with a national average of 58 percent, according to Lawrence Rudmann, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"Getting the kids to eat the food is not always an easy thing to accomplish," said Ronnei's boss, Bill Larson, executive director of operations. "Jean goes out of her way to meet kids' nutritional needs as well as their preferences. She's always been a national champion in my book."
A people person
A tall woman with a friendly smile, Ronnei is as devoted to keeping her staff happy as she is to getting kids to eat their veggies. She once planned and helped serve a special sit-down lasagna meal to a school lunch staff as a thank-you for a year of perfect attendance, then immersed her manicured nails in suds to scrub the crusty pans.
"They were a beast to clean," said Ronnei. "So what we now do is put a disposable pan inside the metal pan so they can just throw it away. We solved the problem."
After meeting a freelance restaurant critic at a party several years ago, Ronnei began a Secret Diner program in the district. The critic reviews individual schools for quality of service, food, cleanliness and even friendliness, and Ronnei uses the reports as a "training opportunity" for school staff members.
"We want to know about the whole lunch atmosphere," said Ronnei. "It impacts the child's experience."
She spent the early years of her career in hotel and restaurant management, and likes to incorporate current food trends in the district's menus. The senior high school Good to Go program, for example, offers students Panera-type menu choices: a half-sandwich plus a salad or cup of soup.
"Jean's dynamic, but kind of low-key," said Miner. "She just doesn't take credit for herself." Indeed, Ronnei is quick to draw others into her light.
"You don't build a good program without good people," she said. "And these people are fabulous."