The students scarfing down wheatberry salad, orange chicken or black bean burgers at Washburn High School may not know it, but they’re part of a grand gamble by the Minneapolis school lunch folks.

They’re getting more choices and good nutrition this year, as are students at high schools across the district. But that comes at a cost. Two prep cooks and a food service assistant have been added at Washburn, bring the food staff to seven people and raising the cost of production.

To offset that, the school needs to sell more lunches.

So far, it’s paying off. Head cook Betty Danielson said that last year Washburn sold an average of 525 lunches per day. That meant that less than half the students were buying them. Now on a typical day the school sells at least 660 lunches and has topped 700.

That’s the payoff that Bertrand Weber was looking for when he took over as the nutrition director for Minneapolis schools a year ago.

Weber has already boosted the percentage of Minneapolis schoolkids eating school lunch to 71 percent, up 9 percentage points from last school year. And that’s despite many of the changes he envisions so far reaching only high schools and two elementary-middle schools with the right kitchen facilities.

Freshman: ‘It’s way better’

But Weber sees much more work ahead to deal with the barriers that impede the district’s efforts to improve school meals. That’s why the district is hiring a consultant to review kitchens and cafeterias in city schools, focusing on space and equipment needs, while evaluating the district’s food operations at his department’s Plymouth Avenue headquarters and the logistics of getting it to schools.

That study will tell Weber and the district the cost to convert kitchens at dozens more schools so they can enjoy both the variety and healthiness of foods introduced at high schools.

Washburn students got a taste of the changes last spring, when Weber and his staff student-tested recipes for the more varied menu options on a weekly basis. Students quickly dubbed them “real food days.”

Now they get those upgraded menus every day. “I think it’s way better,” said freshman Cashmir Mullins, comparing the Washburn fare to what she got in middle school. “It tastes better. It has more seasoning.”

Bulk out, fresh in

Indeed, the tang of food and seasoning wafts through the spacious Washburn kitchen: potatoes baking in salt, pepper and canola-olive oil, caramelizing carrots, porketta with fennel. More of that food is assembled on site, too. Pizzas used to come pre-made, with only pepperoni added by hand. Now there’s naked crust, with cooks adding oil, sauce, cheese and a choice of toppings. Cheese, pepperoni and roasted vegetable pizza are offered now, but hand assembly makes it easier to try new combinations.

That’s a sharp departure from the way things have been since the mid-1970s, when the district opened its 77,000-square-foot Nutrition Center. Before then, many students went home for lunch. Minneapolis was in the forefront of a wave of centralized kitchens that imported bulk food on one end and sent it out the other in plastic trays or baggies. Now there’s a counterrevolution against the prefab approach, and students notice the difference.

“This is way better than middle school,” student Michael Radecki said. “Everything was wrapped in plastic.”

But Weber wants the consultant’s help on whether expanding that districtwide will be cost-effective. After decades of prefab food that was merely reheated or kept chilled for serving, many elementary and middle school kitchens lack cooking equipment. The consultant will detail the renovations and equipment purchases needed to expand the high school-style menu citywide.

More scrutiny of lunches

All of this is happening against a backdrop of heightened federal attention to school lunches. For example, regulation is tightening to the point where students need to take at least one-half cup of fruit or vegetables with their meal or it doesn’t qualify as reimbursable for state and federal aid. That means the student must pay $2.50, or 25 cents more than the regular price.

Schools are being required to meet maximum and minimum calorie levels with the menus they post. Those ranges differ by age group. That makes it tricky at schools covering kindergarten through eighth-grade students because there’s only a 50-calorie overlap between the minimum for middle grades and the maximum for younger students, Weber said. Ten schools serving younger grades got new salad bars starting this month, but others need more equipment to launch even that relatively modest change. New sinks or vent hoods, or new wiring are common needs.

Other changes are coming. The Nutrition Center will add edible plantings to its visible front. School gardens are launching at Dowling and Nellie Stone Johnson schools. The district is buying about 10 percent of its food from local growers, and 40 percent from local sources, which include some midsize food companies. There’s an effort to incorporate dishes adapted from immigrant cuisine, such as the chicken molé that the department is developing

One example of local sourcing is the turkey thighs and legs that the district buys from Cannon Falls-based Ferndale Market, a free-range turkey farm that eschews additives. Weber pays less for that meat than for federal ground beef and gives the farmer a market for turkey parts in lower demand.

“He wins. I win. Kids win,” Weber said.


Twitter: @brandtstrib