Scratch cooking, local ingredients serve up a school lunch revolution in Minnesota

Two Black students sit together at a lunch table
Sisters Anica Barze, 15, (left) and Alise Barze, 16, share lunch at Roseville Area High School on Feb. 1.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

At 9 a.m. on a recent Thursday, Roseville Area High School kitchen staffers busily chopped vegetables, washed fruit, mixed spices into rice and beans and pulled pans of roasted chicken meat out of industrial-sized ovens.

Twelve entrees were on the menu, but the jerk chicken drumsticks, curried rice and Caribbean black beans designed by Minnesota chef Sharon Richards-Noel — all made from scratch — were the pièces de résistance. Watermelon radishes, sourced from local farmers were peppered in along the cafeteria lines. 

“We’re really on a mission to get back to more scratch-cooked food,” said Angela Richey, nutrition services supervisor for Roseville Area Schools. “Each year, we include more and more recipes, and we take off another processed item.”

For generations of Minnesotans who grew up with mass-produced, heat-and-serve school lunches, the transformation underway at Roseville High and other schools is remarkable. A steady stream of funding from Minnesota’s universal school meals legislation passed last year has the potential to help remake the way lunch is done across the state. 

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While the costs of this kind of fare are higher, advocates point to research showing it benefits students — they really do eat healthier — and supports the local farm economy.

A person pours beans from a bowl
Nutritional manager Kris McArthur mixes black beans and bell peppers during lunch prep at Roseville Area High School.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Bigger budget, better food

Roseville’s work expanding their offering of fresh, local, healthy food has been turbocharged. 

Like many places, offering meals free-of-charge means more students are eating in the cafeteria. In the high school, the number of kids eating cafeteria lunch has gone up by 11 percent. Breakfast numbers are up 26 percent. 

“This increase in participation has increased our projected revenue and what that does for us is it allows us to reinvest in the program,” Richey said. “A lot of that this year went immediately into labor because we had to hire more people or increase hours to cover all of the additional meals.”

The sort of scratch cooking that Richey wants to see more of takes additional skill and time. Instead of the “box-cutter” approach involving processed heat-and-serve food that many districts have moved to, kitchen staff need to chop more vegetables, mix more ingredients and cook meat on site to the perfect temperature. They also need high-quality, working kitchen equipment. 

Two people walk through a large commercial kitchen
Nutritional services supervisor Angie Richey (right) takes Chef Sharon Richards-Noel on a tour of the kitchen at Roseville Area High School.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“That requires our staff to feel competent in their cooking abilities,” Richey said. “They need to be able to follow a recipe. They need to be able to take the temperatures of raw proteins and feel confident that no one’s gonna get sick.”

Getting food to the cafeteria trays of more than 1,200 students can be a complicated process. There are budget concerns, nutrition regulations to follow, recipes to adjust and produce at scale, food procurement and storage to pay attention to. 

It’s expensive to source fresh and local. It requires networking with farmers, paying for organic, smaller-scale food and paying staff to do on-site cooking. In Roseville, a government grant program that last cycle got $4.25 million to Minnesota schools, has helped reimburse some of the cost of sourcing from Minnesota farmers.

But now that Roseville and other schools have seen how it can work and established the contacts they need to get fresh apples, milk, pork, carrots and other Minnesota-grown items, many want to do more. 

A person carries a tray of drumsticks
Kris McArthur carries a tray of jerk chicken during lunch prep at Roseville Area High School.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The universal school meals program, with its steady income and increased student participation will help them keep paying for it even as the amount of grant money that pays for the local ingredients drops next year. 

Roseville tries to focus on local food at least twice a month — something that reinvests money in local farmers and gets fresher, sometimes organic food on students’ plates. According to Richey, a bigger nutrition budget will make it more possible to expand the farm-to-school work the district is already doing.

“We’ve upped our game this year. We’ve started working with a local chicken farmer,” Richey said. “We’ve got a new beef farmer who is — he got back into cattle farming for school nutrition. We make sure that we are supporting small farmers.”

The St. Louis Park school district has seen similar trends. The increasing number of students eating cafeteria food lets the system invest more in local fruit, vegetables and turkey, said Tami Borgen, who is the district’s nutrition manager.

“We’ve been spending more money to farm to school this year,” Borgen said “And next year with the high revenue (from) this year will only allow us to be able to continue doing what we've been doing this year … because there’s more funds for us to be able to do that.”

Two women hold a tray of food
Head cook Tammy Kovalevsky and nutritional manager Kris McArthur pose with a tray of the local lunch at Roseville Area High School.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Research shows farm-to-school initiatives are economically smart, keeping money circulating in local rural communities while making a healthy difference for students, said Erin McKee, community food systems program director for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit research and advocacy group.  

McKee has long championed a state grant program that reimburses schools for local food purchases and applauds the state’s new universal school meals law. 

“When the school meal programs have increased participation, then that grows the school’s food budget,” she said. “And then that can make it possible for them to be able to do things that were out of reach before, including buying that fresh local food, which is so high quality.”

Studies of farm-to-school programs show that kids who participate are more willing to try new foods and they eat more servings of fruits and vegetables per day, McKee said. 

“They’re really setting their taste preferences and eating habits that are going to carry forward for the rest of their lives, and it’s really forming their ideas about what they consider to be normal foods. So it’s really important that they have fresh, healthy food.”

Two students laugh at a table
Rome Boykin, 16 (left), and Max Czeck, 17, sit together during lunch at Roseville Area High School.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

‘Chef’s kiss’

In some parts of rural Minnesota, when word came that schools would be serving free meals due to a new government program, families worried the quality of the food would go down, said Aimee Haag, farm-to-school coordinator for Hutchinson, Litchfield and Dassel-Cokato school districts west of the Twin Cities.

Schools, she added, battled early perceptions that if lunch was free for everyone the quality would be “trash.” 

Haag said they made the case that “this is even better food. People are going above and beyond to make sure that students get great food, feel nourished.”

Students use tongs to serve themselves at a salad bar
Students visit the salad bar in the cafeteria at Roseville Area High School.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

In Hutchinson, school meal participation was already high before universal school meals became an option, with more than 70 percent of students eating in cafeterias. But after the meals were offered free of charge, numbers rose by 8 to 15 percent. 

With grant money and administrator support, the district has invested heavily in its farm-to-table program. It now serves 100 percent local beef, all local milk and in September and October of last year 85 percent of its produce was from local farmers. 

Now that the procurement networks are set up, and more students are eating in cafeterias due to the universal school meals program, Haag said the district will be able to continue investing in local, healthy food, even as grant money dries up.

“If our fund continues to grow and be strong because of the universal meals, it will allow us to continue to put food with meaning on the trays of students in a more secure way, which is important to sustaining these partnerships (with farmers).” Haag said. 

Students use tongs to serve themselves at a salad bar
Students serve themselves at the salad bar in the cafeteria at Roseville Area High School.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“Students smell the difference,” she added. “If you put out a better product, students will slowly or maybe immediately see that difference and want to choose school food.” 

At Roseville High, the scratch-cooked jerk chicken, Caribbean beans and curried rice were a popular choice for students filtering through the lunch line last week. 

Most students who spoke to MPR News rated the scratch-cooked meal a six or seven out of 10. 

For Natalie Horsman, a junior at Roseville High, the cafeteria meals in Roseville, including the recently-served prepared-from-scratch jerk chicken, beans and rice, are usually a win.

“The chicken I would say is like an eight (out of ten) for school lunches,” Horsman said. “I just think all of it's good. I don’t know. People hate on it, but I chow down.”

A student enters numbers on a number pad
A student enters their ID number at the cafeteria checkout during lunch at Roseville Area High School.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Max Czeck, an 11th grade student, said it was better than food he’d had at his previous school. “I honestly found it really good — or that it actually tastes like edible food,” he said. “Like something I would eat at a restaurant.” 

Anica Barze, a sophomore at the school, was not a fan of the menu’s starchy items.

“The rice isn’t bad. It’s not my style. And the beans. No. I’m not really a bean eater,” Barze said. “(But this) Caribbean jerk chicken — my mom made it last week. It tastes really good with ranch. Like baked chicken. It’s just like, chef’s kiss.”