Students in Minnesota’s public schools are getting a food quality upgrade, courtesy of taxpayers.
The so-called “school lunch revolution” underway in the Land of 10,000 Lakes stems from a $4.25 million grant program that’s allowing local schools to craft better meals with more expensive fresh, local, organic ingredients.
“We’re really on a mission to get back to more scratch-cooked food,” Angela Richey, nutrition services supervisor for Roseville Area Schools, told MPR News. “Each year, we include more and more recipes, and we take off another processed item.”
The recent move to empower local food service providers to improve student meals stands in stark contrast to the last attempt at improving school food that was served up through a top-down approach during the Obama administration.
That effort, led by former First Lady Michelle Obama, sparked widespread frustrations in lunchrooms across the nation, as students snapped pictures of their unappetizing lunches and posted them online with the hashtag #thanksMichelleObama.
The failed effort spawned a variety of creative ways to implore students to eat “healthy,” from toy giveaways to free temporary tattoos with every meal, as well as unique ways to get rid of the unprecedented amount of school food waste, but did little to improve student nutrition.
The ability of Minnesota schools to overhaul their food programs is tied in part to rising participation under a universal free school breakfast and lunch program that’s costing taxpayers a lot more than lawmakers initially expected.
At Roseville’s high school, the number of kids eating lunch is up about 11%, and numbers are up 26% for breakfast. It’s a similar dynamic in other districts, with two-thirds more eating breakfast, and 20% more eating lunches in Northfield Public Schools, MPR News reports.
The increasing participation is expected to add $176 million to the cost to cover all school meals on top of the initial two year estimate of $388 million. The situation is reigniting concerns from Republicans who opposed the transition to free school meals for all. Opponents argue tax dollars shouldn’t go to subsidize meals for students whose parents can afford them, The Associated Press reports.
“All the low-income students who need, and we want to … make sure no one goes hungry, they were getting it through the (federal) free and reduced lunch program,” said state Rep. Kristin Robbins, R-Maple Grove.
The change, she said, “gave free lunch to all the wealthy families.”
“That’s a place I think we need to look at” as lawmakers review how to address a tight budget forecast for 2024, Robbins said. “Is that really a priority?”
While lawmakers ponder that question, it’s clear meals students are receiving at school have improved, though it comes with an additional cost in terms of both the food itself and staff time to prepare it.
“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 told MPR News. “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.”
Students have noticed the improved offerings, further boosting sales and strengthening schools’ farm to cafeteria programs, which also has a positive impact on local farmers and growers.
“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.”
It’s a cycle that’s been a win-win-win at St. Louis Park schools, nutrition manager Tami Borgen told MPR News.
“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.”