Culinary boot camp could start a national movement

Minnesota foodservice director links three organizations to improve school nutrition.

When 39 school foodservice directors and their affiliates gathered in December in Minneapolis, Minn., for a three-day culinary “boot camp,” they did more than taste food and share ideas. They planted a seed that creator Bertrand Weber, foodservice director for Minneapolis Public Schools in Minneapolis, Minn., hopes will grow into a movement that will help the school foodservice industry become better.

“We had all size districts, from Detroit [Public Schools] to a district in southern Minnesota that has only two schools,” Weber says. “The goal was peer-to-peer learning, sharing resources and getting comfortable reaching out to others.”

The boot camp, held at the Minneapolis Culinary and Nutrition Center, touched on a number of topics such as commodity usage, scratch cooking versus processed foods, procuring healthier, clean-label ingredients and conducting student taste tests.

The event was sponsored by three disparate organizations:

  • Chef Ann Foundation, an organization created by celebrity chef and school food advocate Ann Cooper that promotes the use of from-scratch cooking in schools.
  • School Food Focus, a national collaborative that pushes efforts to make school meals healthier and to purchase more locally and sustainably sourced ingredients.
  • Life Time Fitness Foundation, a non-profit that offers grants to school districts to help them create programs and purchase ingredients that can make menus healthier.

Weber, who works in some fashion with all three organizations, came up with the idea to link the three groups after his executive chef, Ricardo Abbott, was asked by Detroit Public Schools to mentor its chef, Kevin Frank.

“Ricardo had the idea that maybe we could get a bunch of chefs together,” Weber says. “[It] made me think of these organizations I work with. I thought, instead of working in three different directions, let’s get them all together and work as a group.”

In designing the boot camp, Weber says he tried to stay away from what he calls the “political” aspects of school foodservice. Hence, the School Nutrition Association is not involved, nor is the boot camp sponsored by any food or equipment manufacturer. 

“It’s all about how we can help each other out, dealing with the same challenges, and be a resource for each other,” Weber says.

As an example, he cited the director of one small district who, after the boot camp, reached out to other districts in her area to procure antibiotic-free chicken.

“This would not have happened had we not exposed her to what we were doing on a broader scale,” he says.

Weber says he also hopes to formalize a partnership among the three organizations and then stage boot camps across the country. His goal: connect larger districts with smaller districts that might need some guidance.

“We want to create a template and outline better what each organization can contribute and what each is expecting to get out of [the arrangement],” Weber says. “We want to see whether this can be replicated throughout the country…that’s our goal.”


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