Education Week - March 5, 2014 - Leaders to Learn From - S10
known as Farm to School and currently
serves on the national network's
"That was a great opportunity to
impact more kids," he said.
Then, in 2011, the Minneapolis
district's longtime food-services
director retired, and prominent
members of the city's local food
movement urged Mr. Weber to go
after the job.
First, he did some due diligence.
He found that lunch participation
districtwide was 58 percent,
a dismal rate compared with St.
Paul, where participation was at
78 percent. Cincinnati, a district
of similar size and demographics,
had a 70 percent participation rate.
There was lots of room to grow, he
thought, and the challenge of expanding
and improving the meals
program within the constraints of
a public school district's budget appealed
But he also thought his candor in
the job interview might backfire.
"I was very straightforward that
if they wanted someone to do the
status quo, go right over me," Mr.
Weber said. "And I said, if you want
me for the job, it's going to be about
changing the system for kids."
'A Real Kitchen'
In his first few months on the
job, Mr. Weber went face to face
with parents and students in multiple
community meetings, solicit-
ing their critical feedback.
"People were appalled by the
food service, and I told them I was
just as appalled," he said. "I told
them some ideas we had for making
things better, but I also was
very upfront that this was going to
take time. I couldn't just flip one
switch and go from a food-packing
plant to a real kitchen."
For starters, even the district's
central kitchen had been stripped
of nearly all its cooking equipment
in the mid-1990s. There were no
ovens. No steamers.
Still, to deliver as soon as pos-
sible on promises to bring real, or
"true" foods into lunchrooms, Mr.
Weber and his team began installing
salad bars in some of the city's
schools. To pay for the first few, he
tapped into his existing budget,
but then quickly began seeking
grants and other outside sources
of revenue to cover the expenses.
As of last month, half the dis-
trict's schools were offering the
fresh-produce carts, which feature
items such as spinach, cherry tomatoes,
cantaloupe, pears, threebean
salad, and couscous salad.
"It was important for us to get
kids off fruit wrapped in plastic
packages," he said. "And it was a
way to get skeptical parents paying
for their kids to eat lunch at
Mr. Weber also began making
immediate changes to the menus.
Hot dogs were sourced from a
local cattle company that raises
grass-fed beef and were served
on buns baked by school district
cooks. And Tater Tot hot dish-
a beloved school lunch item in
Minnesota-was revamped to be
cooked from scratch by the district's
head chef in the central
kitchen and assembled by schoolbased
But beyond parents, Mr. Weber
had two other critical groups to
persuade to embrace his vision for
real food: students and his foodservices
To reel in students-especially
decided to test new recipes and
menu items one day a week in select
schools. Students at one high
school quickly dubbed Thursdays
"Real Food Day" and were enthusiastic
about many of the new offerings
like Asian cole slaw and
fresh-baked ciabatta bread.
A year and a half later, lunchroom
meals in some high schools
have become so popular that students
who usually left campus for
lunch are staying, but not everyone
who wants to eat in the cafeteria
can because of time and space
"We're maxed out in our high
schools," he said.
Mr. Weber said the biggest
pushback he got initially came
from older employees in food services
and the union that represents
"Some people worried we were
making too many changes that
were affecting people who had
been here a long time," he said.
To help ease the transition, Mr.
Weber offered culinary classes and
prep-cook training for staff members
who needed support in moving
away from the assembly-line
approach to food service.
Bernadeia H. Johnson, the superintendent
in Minneapolis, credits
Mr. Weber for "revolutionizing"
school lunches in the district.
"Our students are eating health-
ier meals that keep them satisfied
for a day of quality learning and
instruction," she said in a statement.
"Lunch menus are full of variety
and often introduce students
to new and different fresh ingredients,
including foods that reflect
the ethnicities of our students."
Since Mr. Weber started just over
two years ago, overall participation
in the district's meals program
has grown from 58 percent to 66
percent, most of it among the 35
percent of students who pay full
price. Participation among those
who qualify for free- and reducedprice
meals has also ticked up,
from 72.5 percent in 2011 to 87.5
percent. To help pay for the array
of food and nutrition initiatives
spearheaded by Mr. Weber, lunch
prices have been raised by a dime,
but only for students who pay full
price. Mr. Weber also has begun
serving breakfast in classrooms in
20 schools, with plans to expand.
With 30 more salad bars to install
and most schools still without
kitchens and equipment to do
on-site cooking, though, Mr. Weber
and his team have hustled to raise
private money to keep their momentum
going. A local fitness company
and General Mills are among
the benefactors who are backing
He's also found creative ways to
buy local, organically raised food
products within his budget.
Among the 60,000 pounds of
local produce he bought for the
district last fall was one farmer's
entire kale crop, damaged in a
"We were going to chop it up
anyway," he said. "And it gave us
a healthy vegetable to introduce to
Mr. Weber has also drawn on his
deep connections to local chefs and
restaurant owners to persuade
them to get involved in recipe development
for the district. In turn,
the chefs have agreed to endorse
the recipes they create for school
lunches on their own menus.
"He's getting great support and
publicity for what he's doing," said
Ms. Ronnei of the St. Paul district.
"Chefs endorsing school food?
What a message that sends to the
Every school faces the essential challenge of
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S10 | LEADERS TO LEARN FROM > leaders.edweek.org
EDUCATION WEEK * March 5, 2014
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