St. Paul schools’ healthy-food kick gets national attention
Ferndale Market owner John Peterson, from left, Rep. Betty McCollum and U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Kevin Concannon visited St. Paul’s Crossroads Elementary School for lunch Tuesday, March 26, 2013. Peterson’s company provides turkeys to the district through Minnesota’s Farm to School program, championed by McCollum. (Pioneer Press: Mila Koumpilova)
Amid some national buzz about the St. Paul district’s nutrition program, an official delegation invited itself over to St. Paul’s Crossroads Elementary for lunch Tuesday, March 26. There was a head honcho from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Congresswoman Betty McCollum, a smattering of legislative aides and a pediatrician from the Mayo Clinic.
They came to learn more about the district’s all-out health-food kick and its bid to get a head start on stricter federal school lunch rules, announced earlier this year. Last fall, Nutrition Services Director Jean Ronnei snagged the “Golden Carrot” prize by the national nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
But the district also put the guests to work: Along with the Crossroads students, they had to test-drive the new coconut chicken dish, a Karen recipe “on the spicy side,” as Ronnei warned.
“We feel strongly about acquiring tastes for new and exciting foods,” she said.
The officials kicked off their visit in the district’s sprawling central kitchen facility. USDA Undersecretary Kevin Concannon peered in what looked like an oversized washing machine — the mixer for the sauces and salad dressings the district makes from scratch.
Then, baker Cindy Timmers gave a demonstration of the baking equipment and offered the guests some “smart cookies,” baked with oatmeal, whole wheat flour, carrots and organic flaxseed.
“Cindy started out here making donuts 30 years ago, and now she makes smart cookies,” McCollum, a champion of the district’s lunch program pointed out. Then, she added wistfully, “Those chocolate-covered donuts were good.”
Under the new USDA guidelines, schools that get federal subsidies have to gradually cut down on sodium and boost whole grains, among other changes. The district is ahead of the game, Ronnei said: It has reduced sodium enough to satisfy 2015 requirements.
The district premieres at least 10 new recipes a year, many of them inspired by the ethnic cuisines of the increasingly diverse student body. They all go through the district’s Healthy Hits wringer: New dishes have to pass muster with student focus groups, a pilot school and then the entire district. The veggie loaf, a vegetarian meatloaf, did not make the cut.
The district’s $24 million-a-year nutrition program relies on about $20 million in federal funds.
Concannon said he always tries to eat breakfast and lunch at schools when he travels. He says what he’s seen recently is reassuring. In a New Orleans school, for instance, a boy asked to finish Concannon’s broccoli.
“Kids are no longer afraid of vegetables,” he said. “They enjoy them.”
At Crossroads, the visitors met several local farmers who supply grains and turkeys to the district under Minnesota’s Farm to School program. Then, it was time for lunch. Most Crossroads students took a chicken curry sample but stuck with the tried-and-tested turkey hotdog — on a whole wheat bun, with rosemary roasted potatoes.
Third-grader Samara Foisset was not sold on the new dish. To her, coconut simply belongs in pie.
“I think the coconut on the chicken like that just gets me,” she said.
But fourth-grader Seraphim Yang, whose family is from Thailand, gave the recipe a thumbs-up: “It tastes like my grandma’s rice.”