TOP: Laketown Elementary staff serve up food to students. From left are cashier Karen Connell and kitchen staff Sandy Quaintance, Amys. Schwab and Mary Jantz. Dave Fraser was in the back, washing dishes. (Al Lohman/The Patriot) 

Ten years ago, you wouldn’t see a lot of fresh produce in School District 110 coolers or fresh food items on the plates of students in cafeteria lines. Much of it was “heat and serve.”

But these days you might find any of these items on the menu: black bean salsa, dipping veggies and hummus, fresh salads, and more “from scratch” entrees.

There are still the old favorites, like chicken tenders, hot dogs, grilled cheese sandwiches and breaded pork steak (students call it BPS). But the complexion of school district lunches is changing, with more options, more healthy choices for students and more locally sourced ingredients. And some new favorites like orange chicken with rice, pierogies and “better than recess” chicken sandwiches.

Barb Schank, district director of Nutrition Services, coins it as the LEAF Initiative – “love eating authentic food.” Potatoes don’t need to come from a box, she notes. They are peeled and can be served in many ways. Vegetables don’t just consist of frozen corn and peas. There are also fresh veggies like asparagus, squash and cauliflower that can be roasted, layered in other dishes, or prepared in another tantalizing fashion.

Salad dressings don’t need to come out of a bottle. At District 110 schools, most are freshly made. And salt and pepper aren’t the only seasonings. There’s also rosemary, basil, thyme and other fresh herbs. Then there are baked goods and desserts. They can taste really good prepared with whole grains. Chocolate chip bars made from whole wheat flour, for example, are a new favorite at Laketown Elementary.

“As cooks, why wouldn’t we want to take whole foods and create something that’s tasty and healthy?” asks Sandy Quaintance, kitchen manager at Laketown. “What we’re working with now is largely fresh. Hardly anything comes out of a box. And we are encouraged to be creative.”

In line with the “farm to table” movement on the regional restaurant scene, the “farm to school” movement has evolved over the past several years. It traces its roots to the Waconia “edible classroom,” which started in 2009 at the middle school as a vegetable garden with adjacent fruit trees. The garden plot engages students about the “seed to table” progression of food, and much of the produce goes to school larders.

Even the lunchroom itself has now become somewhat of a classroom, with kitchen staff sharing their excitement about food with students, and promoting and encouraging students to try new food items.

The authentic food initiative is transforming the district’s nutrition service, Schank explains, by making the healthy choice the preferred, affordable, and sustainable choice for all students, staff and parents.

The Waconia district’s nutrition program first meets all federal regulations that dictate the types of food groups that must be served at each meal. From there, kitchen staffs have a lot of latitude in how the foods are prepared. And a significant portion of their meals are made from scratch using locally sourced foods.

About 85 percent of district students participate in the school meal program. And Schank admits that appeasing the palates of the nearly 3,500 students across nine locations who eat school lunch every day is downright impossible. But thanks to the creativity of kitchen staff, young people are starting to embrace some of the healthier food options, and the LEAF Initiative is beginning to make a positive difference in the dietary habits of students and staff.

“We can always find flavorful ways to hide or disguise vegetables,” Quaintance laughs. Veggies can be pureed, enhanced with a sauce, or layered in a main entrée. For example, students might not know it, but peppers are blended into a favorite lasagna. And a nutritional white bean paste can be used to thicken alfredo sauce as opposed to more fatty butter or an artificial thickening agent. Shhh…don’t tell your kids!

“There are a lot of good cooks in the community and we are fortunate to have many of them on our staff able to provide good tasting, fresh food to hundreds of students at each school each lunch period,” Schank said.

Staff search their sources for new recipes, they come up with their own, and they sometimes share recipes from school kitchen to kitchen, notes Tracy Braun, who provides administrative support for District 110 Nutrition Services. There are even some friendly “kitchen wars” – like the celebrity chef reality TV show.

The LEAF Initiative also is about promoting economic development for local farmers and food vendors, according to Schank. Approximately 30 percent of prepared meals are locally sourced. The district gets whole wheat flour from a farmer near Jordan, Minn. Fresh apples come from nearby orchards. Other produce also comes from sources in the region, and Nutrition Services is constantly on the lookout for new local sources. Even district staff chip in with bounty from their own gardens.

“Our program continues to evolve, providing more ‘clean’ and more scratch foods for our students,” Schank said. And changes continue to be made in the food preparation and production phases.

For example, the district now has a pasta machine to churn out fresh, homemade pasta, and a transport truck to move produce and share ingredients among the schools so nothing goes to waste. In fact, the “smarter lunchroom” strategy also involves comprehensive waste reduction and organic recycling practices at each school building.

Oh, one final point about the transformation of school lunches.

Students don’t take lunch in the cafeteria any more. It has a name – Café 110.

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