AT A GLANCE
Name: St. Paul (MN) Public Schools
Jean Ronnei is comfortable with microphones, tape recorders, TV cameras, reporter's notebooks and the full panoply of the modern media monster. It comes with the territory when you lead one of the benchmark school nutrition programs in the country at a time when nutrition has become a national obsession.
Ronnei, director of nutrition & commercial services for St. Paul (MN) Public Schools (SPPS), spends a fair amount of time talking about her program, and about school nutrition issues in general. That's because SPPS is able to combine a healthful, varied menu that consistently comes in within budget, with nearly 80 percent lunch participation across the board.
Like a Restaurant
No wonder everyone wants to know how they do it!
The answer begins with Ronnei, who has been in her position since 1990 after an earlier foodservice career that included stops in B&I and restaurants as well as a medical center. This powerful mix of in-segment and out-of-segment experience makes her conversant both in the particular issues driving school foodservice and in out-of-the-box solutions. It has already won her accolades from the School Nutrition Association (SNA) and from her peers; and she was named FAME Golden School Foodservice Director of the Year in 2007.
“To me, this is no different than running a restaurant or a B&I operation,” she offers. “I think we're looking at the same kinds of things. Getting a customer to come back again means that the food had to taste like they expected, the service had to be good and they had to feel respected.”
It's not easy, especially given school nutrition economics, but St. Paul Nutrition & Commercial Services is a well-oiled machine staffed by a veteran administrative crew that has worked hard to leverage every conceivable advantage — from technology and economies of scale to shrewd purchasing and available community resources — to keep costs in check while continuously tinkering with the product to keep the menu fresh and interesting within the necessary nutritional parameters.
Finding Foods That Fit
At the core is an initiative called Healthy Hits that formalizes the process through which SPPS is able to keep its school menus refreshed with new, healthy, kid-friendly choices. Nutrition Services also is highly adept at marketing its services under an umbrella brand called Real Choices. It uses everything from old fashioned posters and flyers to sophisticated audio-visual productions that range from explaining the department's mission and initiatives to parents, administrators and the community at large, to productions introducing students to how to navigate the lunch line, how to recycle and how to participate in the grab-and-go breakfast program.
St. Paul may not be a mega sized city, but it's not exactly small town either. Its 38,000 students, spread among 58 school sites, are a Rainbow Coalition of modern America, with three quarters of the enrollment consisting of minorities, including sizeable numbers from several distinct ethnic groups with particular customs and needs. These include the Hmong from Southeast Asia, and Somalis from Eastern Africa who are mostly Muslim.
Also, like most large urban districts, St. Paul is disproportionately poor and suffers from the nutrition-related issues like obesity and Type 2 diabetes that plague such demographics. That makes nutrition and teaching healthy eating habits a core mission.
This is where Healthy Hits is crucial. Using the slogan “Real Choices,” the district emphasizes foods that are both appealing and healthful, that mimic popular commercial items and that give customers a positive experience.
Under Healthy Hits, the nutrition team researches healthful menu additions that are also kid-friendly and cost-effective, which means using federal commodities and/or inexpensive, in-season local produce. Then, they must be formulated so they can be made efficiently (for the process details, Finding the Healthy Hits).
The improvements are often incremental — brown rice for white, romaine and spinach for iceberg lettuce on salad bars. “Our goal is 10 healthful menu changes a year,” Ronnei says.
The menu innovations involve not just familiar but healthier items but also fairly esoteric ones that target specific groups.
“I had gotten criticism from a school board member during a meeting that our menus didn't represent student population, and I thought he had a good point,” Ronnei recalls. “Not being experts in ethnic dishes, we partnered with Ramsey County Health Department, which helped us find local people who could create authentic recipes.” Among the partners were a Hispanic foods company and a Thai woman who owned her own restaurant.
SPPS worked with these partners to tailor their recipes to the limitations: central production, procurement, food cost, labor capabilities.
“Finding recipes is not easy,” Ronnei says. “To this day that is a very challenging part of the puzzle.”
The issue is not just cost, she emphasizes, but finding ingredients that are cost-effective and versatile enough so they can be used up in other ways. The dishes must also hold up on the serving lines through hours-long lunch periods and have enough kid appeal to justify their place on the menu.
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As an example, Ronnei cites a recently qualified dish, Chicken Suqaar, a Somali specialty consisting of chicken sautéed with cilantro, garlic, carrots, green pepper and onion that is usually served with vegetable rice. “It was one of the more challenging dishes,” she notes.
In this case, four Somali parents went to Purchasing Analyst Jim Groskopf's house, where they tried different ways to make it to put together a workable recipe. Groskopf's knowledge of how different ingredients can be procured was a key component in devising a viable formulation.
Obviously, a Somali dish with a distinct flavor profile is not necessarily going to get mass appeal, but that's okay, Ronnei insists.
“Participation can't be the only driver,” she emphasizes. “It can't be the only reason you put something on the menu. If all your program is about is driving participation, then you'll cut off opportunities for creativity and variety. You'll be missing the boat on exposing kids to new and different foods and teaching them values about food.”
A somewhat exotically flavored dish made with lower-food-cost ingredients may still be able to hold up its financial end in the menu mix even if it is not the most popular item on the menu, she says, while giving students an opportunity to broaden their culinary horizons.
“I think there is a huge amount of pride among my staff about how we care about health and variety, and I think that shows through to the kids,” Ronnei says proudly.
To counter lagging breakfast participation numbers, SPPS last year introduced Breakfast 2 Go (B2G), which gets meals packaged for convenient, mess-free takeout into students' hands so they can eat in the classroom.
Originally implemented among schools that voluntarily embraced the program in order to get as many up and running as possible, B2G is now targeted to be in all schools that offer Provision II breakfast by next January. In its first phase, it had built morning meal participation by about two-thirds in the nearly two dozen schools where it had been implemented.
B2G is only one of several meal program innovations and extensions SPPS has tried. It also offers an afterschool snack program of two components (typically a milk and a scratch-made whole grain item) for students under 18, day care meals (formula and baby food or toddler meals using the National School Breakfast/Lunch Program) for student parents who wish to continue attending classes, and the USDA Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, which provides fresh fruit/vegetable snacks in the classrooms of 18 elementary schools with over 50 percent free/reduced populations.
Another success has been Good to Go, a station concept for high schools designed to reduce a la carte offerings and increase reimbursable meal sales.
“We wanted to migrate the burgers and so forth that were popular as a la carte selections to the reimbursable lunch line so students would also get the fresh produce and milk with the burgers,” Ronnei explains.
“As we were reducing a la carte, we looked for selections we put in that space that would be reimbursable. Our focus groups told us that the kids liked restaurants like Panera and Chipotle, so we created recipes based on choices from those kinds of places but which would fit our nutritional profile.
The most recent initiative is the Expanded Choice bar, rolled out in May. The original Choice Bars menu had featured colorful salad greens, fruits and fresh vegetables. It has now been expanded to include vegetarian protein items such as cottage cheese, chopped hard-boiled eggs and bean and whole grain pasta salads to encourage students to eat more of these healthful items.
Serving as an addition (not an alternative) to the regular menu choices, the bars give students the chance to pack their plates as much as they want, but do it with healthy non-meat proteins that reduce overall food costs.
“Meanwhile, they give kids exposure to different products while giving the adults in the building a salad bar option that includes proteins, something they didn't have before,” Ronnei says. “In that way, we're marketing ourselves to the adults in the building as well as to parents, who get the monthly menu that shows how we're all about nutrition and the health of their children. So when they make a choice about their child's lunch, we hope they choose us over the brown bag.”
Active in the Industry
SPPS has also been an active participant in School Food Focus (SFF), a national initiative composed of the country's 21 largest school districts that seeks to develop more healthful, sustainably produced and regionally sourced food. The district served as the first pilot site for SFF's Learning Lab program, which teamed SPPS nutrition professionals with outside consultants to develop effective procurement and operations practices to enhance the content of district meals.
Among the results were agreements with suppliers that brought SPPS flavored milks with lower sugar content, whole wheat hamburger and hot dog buns, unbreaded/bone-in chicken drumsticks and more locally grown fresh produce like apples, broccoli, cucumbers, onions and watermelon among more than a dozen different fruits and vegetables.
The local purchases in the first two months of the past school year (when the local growing season was at its height) totaled over 100,000 lbs. of product, accounting for more than half of the district's produce purchases within that time period.
The initiative will also bring innovative new dishes to the menu this fall, such as a Buffalo and Wild Rice Casserole. Developed in cooperation with the American Indian Education Program, it features ground bison sourced from Minnesota ranches and locally harvested wild rice.
Like everything else SPPS tries, the new dishes may or may not be widely accepted, but the point is to keep pushing the envelope. The healthy food message, like the welcoming atmosphere in the cafeterias, the customer-friendly touches and all the marketing materials promoting the department and its message, are meant to change minds and attitudes incrementally.
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“I think the appearance of any operation matters a great deal, and if students or adults come in and they see marketing materials that have health halo messages and welcoming messages, they will be more likely to want to eat better,” Ronnei notes. “Clean trays, real silverware, employees with proper attire, happy faces, caring people, whole food, hot food — all those things make the experience one that students would want to repeat.”
The attitude adjustment is also aimed at the staff. One initiative is a reading program called Classroom Connections that brings nutrition staffers into elementary classrooms to read colorful, engaging books about food and farming to jump-start conversations about how food is grown, harvested and served.
“It's one way to change opinions about school foodservice people on the part of students and faculty,” Ronnei says. “But it's also a way for our staff to see the faces of the children in a different light, to see them as people and not just as customers or just as little urchins coming through the line causing trouble.”