MINNEAPOLIS — A USDA administrator got a taste of one of the top school food service programs in the country.

Cindy Long, administrator of the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, visited the Minneapolis Public School’s central kitchen on March 7 to view its nationally-recognized model for scratch preparation and farm-to-school initiative.

Bertrand Weber, director for Minneapolis Public School Culinary and Nutrition Services, has overseen an overhaul of the district’s food service program over the last decade. Since starting the position in 2012, salad bars have been introduced in every school while many of the schools have returned to scratch cooking, and the district has built its farm-to-school initiative to contracting with 18 farms.

When Weber arrived at the district, none of the schools were cooking anything, he said.

“As a whole, our menu is about 80% scratch meal,” said Weber, meaning that food is prepared at the central kitchen or inside kitchens at the schools.

Bertrand Weber, director for Minneapolis Public School Culinary and Nutrition Services, talks with a group including Cindy Long, administrator of the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, on March 7, 2024 at Franklin Middle School in Minneapolis.

Noah Fish / Agweek

Farm to school

Minneapolis Public Schools have been purchasing locally grown produce from farms in the region since 2013, and in recent years have expanded local purchasing to include poultry, meats, grains and beans. 

Currently, Weber said the district has 18 individual contracts with farmers. 

“Between protein, produce and grain, it’s about $465,000,” he said of farmer contracts. 

The district releases requests for proposals in mid-March every year, with the goal of establishing contracts with an array of producers from a five-state region (MN, IA, WI, ND, SD). Eligible applicants are from farms of any size in those states who can provide meat and processed dairy products. 

For vegetables, fruits, dried legumes and whole grains, Minneapolis schools establish contracts with farmers and aggregating organizations like food hubs and cooperatives, focusing on operations with less than $1.5 million gross annual sales, and within 250 miles of the city. The next opportunity for farmers who fall under this category to submit a detailed food safety plan for consideration will be January 2025.

“We started the program over 10 years ago, and every farmer that started with us 10 years ago, is still responding to RFP every year, and remain one of our partners,” Weber said. “I think that’s a testament of the partnership between the two sides.”

Students at Franklin Middle School in Minneapolis eat lunch on March 7, 2024.

Noah Fish / Agweek

Central kitchen

During Long’s tour, she got to see Minneapolis School’s central kitchen located across from Franklin Middle School in north Minneapolis, stacked with equipment acquired through USDA and state funding along with from corporate donations. 

“12 years ago, there was one piece of cooking equipment, which was one kettle, and the only thing they made in that kettle was rice and turkey gravy,” Weber said. “The other side of the building was the assembly line and everything that came in was basically a frozen, processed item that was repackaged into a unitized meal that was sent out to the schools.”

In one room is a cutting machine, purchased with a grant from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, that is able to coin hundreds of pounds of carrots — from
Open Hands Farm
in Northfield — in a matter of minutes. 

“It’s huge, because it’s given us the ability to bypass the processor,” Weber said. “Not only is it cost reduction, it’s also extremely efficient, because we can do a lot more here.”

Joe Hollenback, operations manager at the central kitchen, showed off the district’s kettles which were purchased through the
Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010,
a federal statute signed into law by President Barack Obama. It replaced equipment that was put in during the 1970s, he said, and increased the kitchen’s productivity by about 70%.

“Once we got this piece of equipment, we were able to go from one recipe a day to building a recipe book of around 140 or so,” he said.

Hollenback highlighted the USDA commodity chicken strips, which were being mixed on March 7 with taco seasoning made at the central kitchen. He said when he first started the job, the USDA chicken was teriyaki flavored, meaning it could only be used in a few recipes. 

“With this chicken, which has no flavor to it, we’re able to do many different things,” he said. “It’s chicken taco, it’s Mediterranean chicken, it’s arista chicken, it’s chicken salad, it’s chicken noodle soup. I could just go on and on and on, but it’s a really, really great product.”

Staff work at Minneapolis Public School’s central kitchen on March 7, 2024.

Noah Fish / Agweek

Later on the tour, Hollenback showed the biggest freezer at the central kitchen, which holds mostly vegetables, beef and chicken. 

“Roughly any given time, there’s around $1 million to $2 million worth of food in this freezer,” he said. 

A smaller cooler room, donated by Cargill, helped the kitchen organize its perishable items before it’s sent out to schools. Other Minnesota-based corporations including General Mills and Life Time Fitness have donated equipment to the kitchen, which Hollenback said has been “crucial” to their success.

Walking through the loading area, Hollenback pointed out the changes they had to make to how the food was delivered to schools. 

“Back in the day, bus drivers would come up here and they would bid on this work, but then we realized that bus drivers know nothing about food safety,” he said. “So we took on the big fight with the Teamsters, and finally got our own drivers in this building, which has really helped us out a great deal.”

At the end of the tour, Long joined individuals from other Minnesota schools along with members of the food and nutrition industry for a roundtable discussion on school meals.

“We heard about the great things that are happening with local food, about how the Minnesota Department of Ag is connecting schools with producers, and that’s been a really big success,” Long said of the roundtable. “I also had the opportunity to visit with some industry leadership this morning to hear about all the innovation they’re doing to help produce products that are more nutritious profile things like lower sugar and lower sodium.”

This spring, she said USDA Food and Nutrition Service will roll out enhanced school nutrition standards to improve the quality of school and other child nutrition program meals. 

“I think my biggest takeaway is that we’re on a path, and school meals have been improving for the last 15 years,” Long said. “There’s always a lot of challenges when you’re trying to move a big ship, but there’s a lot of partners who have a great vision for making school meals as healthy and delicious as they possibly can be, and help kids get off to a great start.”



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