This wasn't the typical school lunch of pizza or chicken tenders, but Mila Siskind was fine with that.
Turkey lentil tostadas, cilantro-lime coleslaw and cherry frozen yogurt were on the menu. The foods were all locally-sourced and prepped on-site at Bancroft Elementary School in south Minneapolis, with input from a chef.
"I'm eating peas and meat with cilantro on it, and there's a humongous tortilla chip on the bottom," the kindergartner said. "And it's really good."
Mila was among the discerning taste-testers filing into the school cafeteria on a recent February day to try the new foods. Her upbeat reaction is just what school leaders and nutritionists are hoping for as they work to remake the meal system that has defined American school lunches for decades.
In Minnesota and around the country, many schools are shifting away from nuggets and fries to fresher, locally-grown foods. More than half of Minnesota school districts now have some kind of farm-to-school program.
It's not an easy change. It requires schools to rethink everything when it comes to feeding children. School leaders, though, say the benefits to kids, families and local businesses are too important not to try.
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Minnesota public schools feed tens of thousands of children, including the nearly 40 percent of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. For some kids, school is the source of their best meals of the day.
"It's a no-brainer that if you're full from a great breakfast, you're going to be able to concentrate a lot better when you're in the classroom," said Kate Seybold, the Minneapolis district's farm-to-school coordinator.
"Teaching kids about where their food comes from, the foods that they're eating, what it does to their body — it's a great learning opportunity. And so we try and extend the learning time a bit into the lunchroom every day.
Seeds of the new school lunch movement were planted in 2010 when Congress passed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.
It was part of then-first lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" initiative and it raised the nutritional standards of what schools are allowed to serve at meal times. It also helped communities establish local farm-to-school networks.
Minneapolis took a big step in 2012 when the district hired a new culinary and wellness services director, Bertrand Weber, who had been a hotel and resort manager from Switzerland. Before he came along, most Minneapolis school kitchens just reheated mass-produced, pre-packaged food.
Now, more than half of the district's schools have on-site kitchens that are equipped to make meals from scratch. And schools without an on-site prep kitchen are getting food made from scratch at the district's central kitchen that is packaged into trays and shipped to school sites.
All this healthy, fresh food sounds expensive, but Seybold said it costs the district less.
"By doing scratch cooking, on-site cooking, we're actually saving money because all of the packaging that is used for pre-packaged foods — the costs really add up. So, by being able to make things in bulk, package them in bulk and send them to our schools, it's a lot more economically feasible and cost-effective."
Seybold said sourcing locally also saves money. Paying to ship a case of potatoes from California costs the district around $38 a case while getting local Minnesota potatoes costs less than half that amount — at around $16 a case.
Seybold said the meal program is an integral part of education and child health.
Her department posts educational resources online to help teachers talk about menus. Farmers sometimes visit classrooms to talk about where food comes from.
Local chefs are also weighing in on the school menus.
The turkey lentil tostada at Bancroft came from Lucas Rosenbrook, chef at Alma, an award-winning Minneapolis restaurant. A chicken curry bowl on the menu came from Twin Cities rotisserie Brasa. Kids were also sampling a new breakfast food the district is test-driving: sunrise breakfast grain with oats, quinoa, cinnamon and cardamom.
Bancroft recently opened a fully renovated kitchen and cafeteria space. Teachers say the healthy food effort is working and they've started to eat lunch in the cafeteria, too.
Lunchtime has become an event that students and teachers are excited about, said fourth-grade teacher Emily Torres.
"I talk to my students a lot about the food," she said. "The kids [are] able to see fresh food and that food doesn't necessarily come in a package. It's healthy and it's good. We were talking today — this, compared to what we grew up with, is totally different."
'Broccoli makes you big'
People who study farm-to-school legislation and trends say Minneapolis is a national leader. They also acknowledge that it can be difficult to overhaul food service.
It takes time to build the infrastructure needed to get healthy, tasty food back on the menu; kitchens often need to be renovated from heat-and-serve facilities to places able to cook from scratch, said Stephanie Heim, the Minnesota core partner for the National Farm to School Network.
Schools also need to hire more staff to process food, she added. And the system needs to have distributors who make it easier for schools to get more food from local farmers.
Some Minnesota legislators want to do more to advance farm-to-school networks. A House committee held a hearing Tuesday on a bill that would fund an annual grant program to reimburse schools and early child care providers who use local foods, based on the number of meals served. Its Senate companion gets a committee hearing Thursday.
For now at Bancroft Elementary, the time and effort put into healthy school lunches seems to be paying off.
A quick nonscientific survey of the cafeteria found students who said they loved vegetables. Corn, carrots, peas and broccoli were among some of the top favorites.
Carmen Brown, a Bancroft kindergartener, seemed to be picking up on the education around nutritious food.
Broccoli was her favorite vegetable, she said, "because broccoli makes you big and strong."
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