Getting to Know the Minneapolis Public Schools Food Service Department, Part Two: Small Changes, Big Improvements

When I ask Nicole Barron and Irfan Chaudhry from the Minneapolis Public Schools Food Service Department how parents can help support their efforts to improve the food in Minneapolis Public Schools, the frustration in their voices is obvious. "Be patient," they tell me, "and get the facts before jumping to conclusions. Be open to being wrong in your assumptions, and try to see the change that's happening."

I'll admit to being one of those parents for whom it's much easier to see what's wrong with the school food system than what's right about it. But sitting across from Nicole and Irfan, I'm struck by how motivated they are, how hard they work, how much they know about good food, how much they care about children, and -- now, suddenly -- how much criticism they endure every single day for their efforts. Take a look at the blogosphere, Jamie Oliver, major news networks, you name it -- working within the system to create change can be a thankless job.

"We don't have microwaves in any of the schools," Irfan says, "and people still think we microwave all the food in the schools."

"And there's this perception that we're hiding something," Nicole continues, "but we try to let everyone who has a vested interest in our school food system come here and see what we're doing." I'm sitting with Nicole and Irfan in an upstairs conference room at the Minneapolis Public Schools Nutrition Center, which also serves as the district's food storage and distribution hub. Below us, we can see workers packing tomorrow's lunches (egg rolls with brown rice) into small containers.

I've come to this office to get to know the folks who work here, and to help make sure people know about the positive changes that have taken place in our schools. Here are a few:

  • In 2005, the a la carte menu was eliminated, reducing labor costs (freeing up money to spend on food) and making it difficult for kids to load up on sides dishes instead of entrees.
  • In 2006, non-fruit desserts (aside from cookies) were eliminated altogether, and more fruits were introduced on the menu.
  • In 2007, cookies were taken off the menu. ("Nicole and I went to Anthony [public school in Minneapolis]," Irfan says, "and there was a kid with a stack of cookies for lunch. Nothing else. After that, they were gone.")
  • In 2008, juice was removed from the menu in Minneapolis High Schools.
  • In 2010, strawberry milk was eliminated from the menu altogether. Chocolate milk was removed from the breakfast menu.
  • Also in 2010, corn dogs, chicken nuggets, and breaded chicken patties were removed from the menu.

In fact, when I compare a current menu from Minneapolis Public Schools with a school lunch menu from when I was a kid, the difference is striking. Back in the mid-late 1970s, schools were serving grilled cheese, hamburgers, pizza, hot dogs, and french fries. For an extra $0.05 - $0.20, kids could add chips, pop corn, or ice cream. As I write this post, the kids in Minneapolis Pubic Schools are choosing between a grilled chicken filet on a whole grain bun, penne pasta, a Southwestern wrap, and a chef salad. For "dessert" they can choose a banana or cucumber slices. Is this not progress?

"We've done what we've done slowly," Nicole tells me, "a couple of things at a time. When we removed the juice from high schools in 2008, it did not go smoothly. The kids were upset. Their parents complained. But at the end of the day, that's just too bad -- if they don't like milk, high school kids can drink water. And the consumption of fruit went up."

Who Wants Unhealthy Foods?

I'm fascinated by the concept of people complaining about unhealthy foods being removed from schools. It never occurred to me that parents would lobby for their kids' right to eat juice, cookies, or candy at school.

It turns out that there's another group of stakeholders for whom these changes are even more frightening: the on-site school lunch workers. In Minneapolis, school lunch workers have a lot to fear when it comes to removing unhealthy foods from the menus. This becomes increasingly clear when we discuss the choices that children in Minneapolis have when it comes to breakfast. Irfan runs down the list: "bagels and cream cheese, muffins, a hot breakfast choice every day, five different cereals..."

"What cereals can they choose from?" I ask.

"Non-sugary cereals, sugary cereals..."

"Hold it right there," I say, "are you telling me that you got rid of strawberry milk, but you're giving kids free sugary cereal for breakfast?"

Again, Irfan tells me that they need to make "incremental changes so that people won't notice," but I'm confused as to who will notice, and who cares. I press on.

"Who will revolt if sugary cereal is removed from the menu?" I ask.

"We've tried giving the kids non-sugary cereal," Nicole tells me, "but they won't eat it." I explain that offering kids the choice between sugary cereal and non-sugary cereal isn't exactly fair. Nicole agrees.

It turns out that some of the people who complain the loudest when delicious, sugary foods are removed from the menu are the school lunch workers I mentioned earlier. Here's why:

  • School food reimbursements from the federal government are distributed based on the number of children who take the food; the more kids who take the food, the more money the district has to spend.
  • If schools offer sugary treats where meals should be, kids are more likely to take (and presumably eat) them.
  • If schools do not offer sugary treats, more kids will simply opt out of the program. A percentage of kids will choose healthier alternatives, but another percentage will skip the meal altogether.
  • If fewer children participate in the program, the amount of money the district has to pay school lunch workers will be reduced. Hours may be cut and jobs may be eliminated. (This is pure mathematical conjecture on my part, but the fact is that efficiencies in the system have eliminated approximately 50 food service staff jobs in the past 5 - 10 years.)

There you have it. If fewer kids take the food, fewer workers will be needed to distribute it. Now, I'm not suggesting that school lunch workers don't see the big picture, or that they value their jobs more than our kids' health. I have enormous respect for school lunch workers, who do amazing, important, selfless, often thankless work every single day. I am incredibly grateful for what they do. I am simply pointing out that the system we have in place makes removing sugary cereal from the menu an incredibly scary thing. As Nicole put it, "our staff hasn't had raises in ten years, their insurance is terrible, and we had layoffs 18 months ago. So when the options kids like go away, people freak out." They have a right to.

Healthy Food They'll Eat

Nicole and Irfan tell me they've instructed their primary processed produce vendor, Cre8it, to source local foods whenever possible. The Food Services website tells me that these include all sorts of produce, meats, dairy, and more. It's an impressive list, but it's not focused on products that are grown using sustainable methods. When I ask about how sustainability fits into their purchasing practices, Irfan and Nicole explain that their first priority is to get students to eat healthier foods, and that sustainability comes next. It's hard for me to disagree with their priorities.

"We need to source consistent product," Irfan says, "if the apples are mealy or inconsistent, the kids won't eat them. We buy Richland Hills apples, and we know that the kids will eat them when they're washed, sliced, and bagged. We need to make healthy food available to our students that they'll eat."

It's encouraging to see more and more farmers (like organic farmer Greg Reynolds from Riverbend Farm, providing produce to the Hopkins School District) doing just that -- sourcing healthy local food that kids actually eat.

"When we served summer squash," Nicole says, "some of our teachers thought they were lemons. We still have a lot of work to do." Indeed.

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Lee Zukor is the founder of Simple, Good, and Tasty. Email him at