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Bertrand Weber: Game on

Bertrand Weber has transformed child nutrition services at Minneapolis Public Schools by moving away from a prepackaged meal model to cooking from scratch on site.

At a Glance

  • 35,000 enrollment
  • 62 sites
  • 64% free and reduced percentage

Accomplishments

  • Moving away from a prepackaged meal model to cooking from scratch on site. The move has increased participation and staff morale
  • Adding salad bars to give students fresh produce
  • Creating a farm-to-school program that features monthly taste tests at elementary schools
  • Partnering with local organizations to bring in more local food and leveraging buying power to purchase cleaner labeled items

Stop complaining and take action” was the message Bertrand Weber got from his family after his son was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and he told them he was “appalled” at the food served at his son, Eric’s, school. Taking their advice, Weber stepped into school foodservice, going on a mission to provide food that would help—not harm—his son. His latest move brought him to Minneapolis Public Schools, where, in less than three years, Weber has begun transforming the program from one serving prepackaged foods to a cook-from-scratch-on-site operation.

Effecting change hasn’t been easy, Weber admits, but he’s changed attitudes, created partnerships with other districts and chefs and built a farm-to-school program. And his students are responding—participation is up 10%.

Accepting the challenge

“I was the angry parent,” Weber says of his introduction to school foodservice. “All the school was serving was refined carbohydrates and processed foods, which were the last things Eric needed.”

Weber, who left his job at a country club when Eric was diagnosed, found out about a job in a different district’s foodservice department. “My family said, you better take this and shut up,” Weber recalls. He did, becoming the director at Hopkins Schools, just outside Minneapolis, in 2003.

Weber admits that his first foray into school foodservice wasn’t exactly pleasant. “I was learning all the regulations, the commodities, USDA, offer versus serve and all of the components. But no one was looking at what a meal should look like,” he says. “I would ask, ‘why are we serving french fries with pizza?’ They would say, ‘french fries are a vegetable.’ No, that’s not a vegetable.

“When I started I was angry,” he continues. “I’ve calmed down and I’m trying to make changes in a nicer way. We have made tremendous progress, but it’s an ongoing battle.”

In 2012, Weber took his battle to Minneapolis Public Schools, a district that had no schools cooking on site. Forty years ago, only five of the district’s 60 schools were even serving lunch to students. In 1975, the district decided to build a central kitchen to provide meal service to all students. The service model selected was prepacked, so all meals were cooked, packaged and shipped to the sites, where they were reheated and served.

Over time, the facility was scrapped of all cooking equipment, and by 2000 it was simply a repackaging plant.

The community was never happy with the move to prepackaging. Weber found newspaper clippings and notes from parents and students complaining about the facility. “There was an outcry that we would serve kids TV dinners at school and about the environmental impact of prepack. But nothing was ever done,” he recalls.

Until Weber arrived. After Hopkins, Weber knew he needed to make changes but in a slower fashion. Because he didn’t have the money to build new kitchens, Weber looked for alternatives to move toward a fresh food program. Salad bars were his answer. 

Salad bars would enable Weber to serve his students fresh produce, a first step in the move to cooking from scratch. He quickly learned, however, that this wasn’t going to be an easy task.

“Minneapolis requires that all salad bars be mechanically refrigerated,” Weber says. “A lot of the schools didn’t have the electrical system so we’d have to put that in. To be a full-prep salad bar you really need a two-compartment sink and a three-compartment sink. The minute we touch the wall to put in a sink, then we have to put in the whole kitchen to get back into code because the school would no longer be grandfathered. The sink now makes us put in a hood, the hood makes us put in an electrical panel and my $9,000 salad bar becomes a $120,000 project.”

However, Weber and his team worked through the challenges, and there are now salad bars in more than 30 schools. Some of the schools are able to cut produce on site because they have the sinks to do so. Others receive their produce washed, cut and prepackaged from the central kitchen.

Cooking from scratch

Salad bars are a great first step, but Weber also is moving to cooking on site. He’s started at the high schools, where some had remnants of kitchens. At those schools, raw protein is brought in and cooked on site. Items such as sauces are still made at the central kitchen—which also was updated with some cooking equipment—and shipped to the schools to finish meals.

With funds from the district’s capital renewal plan, Weber will be able to build five to six new kitchens each year.

The change to scratch was also a huge adjustment for the staff. “We wanted to be the best prepack district in the nation,” Irfan Chaudhry, assistant director for foodservice, recalls of the program pre-Weber. “We did not think [moving to scratch cooking] was possible at that time.

“Bertrand has really turned our lives upside down,” he adds. “He has given us this challenge. I have a new purpose for my job. I have made changes in my personal life because I know I need to model behaviors that are good for kids.”

Menu changes

Foodservice staff aren’t the only ones responding positively to the changes. Participation is up by about 10%.

Much of that is attributed to changes in the menus, especially at the high school level where scratch cooking makes up 80% of the items served.

Because they have more control over the ingredients, the nutrition team has been able to add ethnic items to meet the demands of the culturally diverse district. Asian and Hispanic entrées have been added, including a Hmong curry chicken that was developed in partnership with a local chef.

Weber is also building a farm-to-school program. He is sourcing proteins and produce from local—within 200 miles—farmers. This year the district put out an RFP for seven produce items, including carrots and cucumbers, to purchase large quantities of these items locally. The department then markets these items on its website and during meal service as local.

In addition to those items, the department also purchases other in-season produce items, which are then used in the program. One way that is done is monthly taste tests at the elementary schools.

Partnerships

Joining ranks with farmers is only one group with which Weber has built ties. He’s also created the True Food Chef’s Council, a group of local chefs who work with the district to develop recipes, engage students and host fundraising events.

Weber has also reached out to his sister district, Saint Paul. In addition to buying items together, the districts will host Minnesota Thursdays this fall where both districts will serve the same menu, featuring local items.

“Bertrand is very opinionated about food,” says Monica McNaughton, R.D., assistant director of nutrition services for Saint Paul Public Schools. “But he’s brought in other opinions. He’s not a silo. I think it’s very humbling from his part.”

All that reaching out hasn’t gone unnoticed. “Bertrand is really good at putting the word out for schools across the nation,” she continues. “He has been very vocal about the challenges that he has with not having school kitchens and equipment. He’s done a really good job at saying, ‘this is my struggle, this is my vision and I’m going to fight for it.’ When he does that, we get to ride on his coattails. His success ends up becoming others’ success."

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