Minneapolis Leader Turns School Cafeterias Into 'Real Kitchens'
- Expertise: Student Nutrition
- Position: Director, Culinary and Nutrition Services
- District: Minneapolis Public Schools
Bertrand Weber had devoted his professional life—in boutique hotels and high-end restaurants—to pleasing the most discerning of palates.
But the breaded chicken nuggets and canned fruit swimming in syrup he saw on his son’s lunch tray pushed the longtime hotel and restaurant manager to swap a career in stylish hospitality for the decidedly less posh world of school cafeterias.
He was determined to transform what K-12 students in Minnesota eat at school.
“We were pumping our kids with processed food,” said Mr. Weber. “I became an angry parent.”
Now, more than a decade later, Mr. Weber is the director of culinary and nutrition services for the 36,000-student Minneapolis district, where he is overseeing a massive shift in what students in that city encounter in their cafeterias.
He is steadily phasing out prepackaged meals assembled in a central kitchen and trucked to school lunchrooms and replacing them with meals made from scratch and featuring fresh fruit, vegetables, and meats and other ingredients that are locally sourced.
Butternut-squash turkey chili, heirloom-tomato salsas, and fresh salad bars are becoming fixtures in Minneapolis’ school lunchrooms.
What makes the ongoing transformation in Minneapolis remarkable is that Mr. Weber has done it with a food-service budget considerably smaller than those of similarly sized districts. When he came on board in January 2012, Minneapolis’ food budget was $15.6 million, compared with $23 million across the Mississippi River in the neighboring, and slightly bigger, St. Paul school district.
And he’s doing it in a district where most of the 62 schools do not have fully functioning kitchens.
“It’s a really smart tactic he’s using to raise the image of his program so that participation rates go up and [he can] raise more revenue to do all the things he wants to do,” said Jean Ronnei, the chief of operations for the St. Paul district and the vice president of the School Nutrition Association. “For 30 years, if you talked about school food in Minneapolis, you were talking about airline-type food. He is completely changing that, and with it, completely changing people’s minds about what food is in that school system.”
Born in Switzerland, Mr. Weber, 57, brings a missionary’s zeal to the job of school food. And for very personal reasons.
His son, at age 7, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, requiring daily doses of insulin and close monitoring of his food intake.
“I went to lunch with him every day in that first year after his diagnosis,” Mr. Weber said. “The last things he needed were exactly the things being served in the cafeteria every day: highly refined carbohydrates and canned, syrupy fruit. I complained endlessly about the food.”
A short time later, his son’s district—Hopkins, in surburban Minneapolis—launched a search for a new food-services director who had a hospitality background like Mr. Weber’s.
“My family said to me that if I didn’t apply for the job, I could never complain about school food again,” he said. “They were right.”
He landed the job. Mr. Weber led the food-services program for three years in the 7,400-student Hopkins district, where he was able to introduce more fresh produce, purchase local food products, and involve students and the community in the planning of menus. He pushed hard to eliminate trans fats in Hopkins, years ahead of the recent federal mandate to so do.
From there, he left for a job overseeing nutrition and culinary standards for a privately owned food-management company that helped more than 180 districts across Minnesota and other Midwestern states bring fresh fruit and vegetable bars to school lunchrooms. He also got involved in the growing movement known as Farm to School and currently serves on the national network’s executive committee.
“That was a great opportunity to impact more kids,” he said.
Then, in 2011, the Minneapolis district’s longtime food-services director retired, and prominent members of the city’s local food movement urged Mr. Weber to go after the job.
First, he did some due diligence. He found that lunch participation districtwide was 58 percent, a dismal rate compared with St. Paul, where participation was at 78 percent. Cincinnati, a district of similar size and demographics, had a 70 percent participation rate. There was lots of room to grow, he thought, and the challenge of expanding and improving the meals program within the constraints of a public school district’s budget appealed to him.
But he also thought his candor in the job interview might backfire.
“I was very straightforward that if they wanted someone to do the status quo, go right over me,” Mr. Weber said. “And I said, if you want me for the job, it’s going to be about changing the system for kids.”
‘A Real Kitchen’
In his first few months on the job, Mr. Weber went face to face with parents and students in multiple community meetings, soliciting their critical feedback.
“People were appalled by the food service, and I told them I was just as appalled,” he said. “I told them some ideas we had for making things better, but I also was very upfront that this was going to take time. I couldn’t just flip one switch and go from a food-packing plant to a real kitchen.”
For starters, even the district’s central kitchen had been stripped of nearly all its cooking equipment in the mid-1990s. There were no ovens. No steamers.
Still, to deliver as soon as possible on promises to bring real, or “true” foods into lunchrooms, Mr. Weber and his team began installing salad bars in some of the city’s schools. To pay for the first few, he tapped into his existing budget, but then quickly began seeking grants and other outside sources of revenue to cover the expenses.
As of last month, half the district’s schools were offering the fresh-produce carts, which feature items such as spinach, cherry tomatoes, cantaloupe, pears, three-bean salad, and couscous salad.
“It was important for us to get kids off fruit wrapped in plastic packages,” he said. “And it was a way to get skeptical parents paying for their kids to eat lunch at school again.”
Mr. Weber also began making immediate changes to the menus. Hot dogs were sourced from a local cattle company that raises grass-fed beef and were served on buns baked by school district cooks. And Tater Tot hot dish—a beloved school lunch item in Minnesota—was revamped to be cooked from scratch by the district’s head chef in the central kitchen and assembled by school-based cafeteria staff.
But beyond parents, Mr. Weber had two other critical groups to persuade to embrace his vision for real food: students and his food-services staff.
To reel in students—especially hard-to-impress teenagers—he decided to test new recipes and menu items one day a week in select schools. Students at one high school quickly dubbed Thursdays “Real Food Day” and were enthusiastic about many of the new offerings like Asian cole slaw and fresh-baked ciabatta bread.
A year and a half later, lunchroom meals in some high schools have become so popular that students who usually left campus for lunch are staying, but not everyone who wants to eat in the cafeteria can because of time and space constraints.
“We’re maxed out in our high schools,” he said.
Mr. Weber said the biggest pushback he got initially came from older employees in food services and the union that represents them. “Some people worried we were making too many changes that were affecting people who had been here a long time,” he said.
To help ease the transition, Mr. Weber offered culinary classes and prep-cook training for staff members who needed support in moving away from the assembly-line approach to food service.
Bernadeia H. Johnson, the superintendent in Minneapolis, credits Mr. Weber for “revolutionizing” school lunches in the district.
“Our students are eating healthier meals that keep them satisfied for a day of quality learning and instruction,” she said in a statement. “Lunch menus are full of variety and often introduce students to new and different fresh ingredients, including foods that reflect the ethnicities of our students.”
Since Mr. Weber started just over two years ago, overall participation in the district’s meals program has grown from 58 percent to 66 percent, most of it among the 35 percent of students who pay full price. Participation among those who qualify for free- and reduced-price meals has also ticked up, from 72.5 percent in 2011 to 87.5 percent. To help pay for the array of food and nutrition initiatives spearheaded by Mr. Weber, lunch prices have been raised by a dime, but only for students who pay full price. Mr. Weber also has begun serving breakfast in classrooms in 20 schools, with plans to expand.
With 30 more salad bars to install and most schools still without kitchens and equipment to do on-site cooking, though, Mr. Weber and his team have hustled to raise private money to keep their momentum going. A local fitness company and General Mills are among the benefactors who are backing the efforts.
He’s also found creative ways to buy local, organically raised food products within his budget.
Among the 60,000 pounds of local produce he bought for the district last fall was one farmer’s entire kale crop, damaged in a hail storm.
“We were going to chop it up anyway,” he said. “And it gave us a healthy vegetable to introduce to our kids.”
Mr. Weber has also drawn on his deep connections to local chefs and restaurant owners to persuade them to get involved in recipe development for the district. In turn, the chefs have agreed to endorse the recipes they create for school lunches on their own menus.
“He’s getting great support and publicity for what he’s doing,” said Ms. Ronnei of the St. Paul district. “Chefs endorsing school food? What a message that sends to the community.”