School was out, but for the Somali families touring the St. Paul school's central kitchen on a recent Friday, it was a time to learn -- and to ask important questions.
Mothers went past gleaming kettles and walk-in ovens, and then stopped at a photo display of what looked like pork products, consumption of which is forbidden in the Muslim world.
Questions flew, among them: How could pepperoni be anything but pork? But after being assured that it was chicken or turkey, and that, in fact, St. Paul's menus were entirely pork-free, the women, satisfied, joined a line serving a school lunch for dinner.
Everyday life can get complicated in a district where students speak more than 100 languages and dialects. Lunch preparation can be a source of mystery, too, for new immigrants, and to ease concerns the district has begun hosting kitchen visits for its Somali, Karen, Hmong and Latino parent groups.
St. Paul's nutrition services budget is $24.9 million annually, with $21 million covered through federal reimbursement. Last week, Jean Ronnei, the district's nutrition services director, acknowledged that to cover costs and remain self-sufficient, with no local tax contribution, you need customers -- like any restaurant. But that's not the reason for the outreach efforts, she said.
"We want to make sure our families are happy," Ronnei said.
The Somali night drew 131 adults and children, and came about a month after a Karen tour that was similarly well-received, she said. Said a Karen parent: "Now we know how much effort [the] nutrition center puts into making a good meal for our children. We thank you for taking good care of our children like how we would at home."
Tours also have included tips on diversifying meals at home, something that Somali families need, said Mohamed Hadi, a district Somali cultural specialist. Too many families, he said, subsist on a diet of rice, meat, spaghetti and milk, and miss out on a variety of fruits and vegetables. Positioned behind him as he spoke were large trays of fresh strawberries and carrots.
For the next tour, Hadi said, he hoped to bring in 200 people. According to district data for the 2011-12 school year, about 3 percent of St. Paul's 37,776 students, or about 1,133, speak Somali at home.
Plenty of questions
The children on hand for the most recent tour were invited to climb a platform and look into a 300-gallon kettle used to make taco meat and spaghetti sauce. Later, two boys tried slipping through a door into the walk-in ovens as a girl asked: "Is it cooking?"
The ovens weren't operating, but on the previous day they had baked 27,736 muffins -- or 868 cases worth, a new single-day high.
All of the district's breads and muffins consist of at least 51 percent wheat flour, the visitors were told, and its "breakfast smart cookie" has ingredients that include oatmeal, flax seed and carrots along with the chocolate chips.
After receiving cookie samples, the guests moved on to the display of pork lookalike products, and at the very front, asking questions of nutrition specialist Tessa Acker, was Basro Mohamud, the mother of a Cherokee Heights second-grader.
One day, Mohamud said, her son, Hamza Abdiwhab, 10, told her that he'd been given a ham sandwich at school. He assured her he was careful to remove the ham, but she didn't want him to eat the bread, either. Since then, she has told him: "Just eat the fruit."
Acker explained that what appeared to be ham stacked in a sandwich actually was smoked turkey. But Mohamud pressed on. What about the hot dog casing? she said. Eventually, she was put at ease, and for Hamza, that could be good news.
Asked if her son might now be eating corn dogs, she replied: "Next week."
Anthony Lonetree • 651-925-5036