More Meal Kit Mastery in Minneapolis

In its October 2020 issue, School Nutrition spotlighted district school meal programs that were turning the lemons of curbside meal service into the most delicious lemonade by finding inventive ways to transform takeout meals. Although the print edition did not have space to share the forward thinking of the team at Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS), we report on their efforts below.

Spotlight: Minneapolis Public Schools, Minnesota
Website: MPS department website; https://cws.mpls.k12.mn.us/current_menus (menus & instructions); https://cws.mpls.k12.mn.us/smb_locations (locations & details)
Social: @MPS_TrueFood (Twitter), MPS True Food (Facebook), @mps.truefood (Instagram)

Like districts around the country, the “Student Meal Boxes” distributed to MPS families evolved as the district refined and improved the emergency meal service provided during COVID-19 school closures. MPS Director of Culinary & Wellness Services Bertrand Weber realized quickly that daily service wasn’t sustainable for his staff, or for the families they serve. “We started with daily meal bags [but] it became evident this was not efficient—nor did it make sense to have so many sites open,” says Weber.

When USDA waivers made packaging multiple days of meals possible, MPS staff created a five-day pack of meals consisting of mostly individually wrapped (IW) products, including student favorites like IW turkey and beef burgers, nachos, pizza and tamales. “This is when we started exploring how to build boxes with a ready-to-eat entrée, looking at fruits and vegetables to [make] a kit,” explains Weber. “We looked at giving bagged lettuce, so families could build their own salads; a pound of grapes as opposed to an individual serving. We worked with our local produce company that provided mixed packs of hand fruits (apples, oranges, pears), which worked well in decreasing some of the packaging. Families really seemed to enjoy these bulk items.”

Over the summer, MPS staff transitioned from five to seven days’ worth of meals in the Student Meal Boxes, and they began producing a video series they posted on social media. Some of these piggybacked on the popular “unboxing” videos on YouTube, explaining the contents of the week’s box and showcasing different menu suggestions. Others featured recipe demos, while some were simple entrée reheating instructions. “We wanted to give families more options, so say you have a turkey sandwich we show how to transform it to a grilled cheese & turkey sandwich, or putting [extra] vegetables on top of a pizza,” says Weber. “We provided recipes, and also creative ‘to-do’ videos, making it fun.”

Back-to-school marked an initial return to the NSLP meal pattern (until waivers were granted) and MPS applied a fixed, two-week cycle menu. Remote learning was still in place, so Weber and his staff worked to keep students engaged in school meals through both effective marketing and maintaining the high qualify of food MPS students were accustomed to. “We need to make sure we pack the kids’ favorites and still maintain the integrity of our initial programming. About 80% of that range goes away once you lose the ability to cook in our schools,” he concedes.

MPS Executive Chef Mark Augustine notes that survival comes down to one important factor: adaptation. “You have to be flexible and open to different ways of doing things. We maximized our time and ability. We kept our teams busy producing some menu items in-house, but a lot of the effort was in organizing the sheer amount of food it takes to build 14 meals in one box. We would have one team that would build, say, 14,000 or 15,000 sandwiches per day, then another team would package all the items, whether they were items we made ourselves or that came from a manufacturer.”

Social media has proven a critical communication tool for reaching families with the specifics of school meal service. Multiple daily posts include updates on everything from the contents of the Student Meal Boxes, to instructions and recipes, to photos of the meal kits themselves. MPS shares across multiple platforms—Facebook, Twitter and Instagram—every day. Beyond the meal boxes, they promote other initiatives, such as October’s National Farm to School Month partnerships and celebrations.

Weber and his staff doing their best to anticipate new problems they might face as SY2020-21 continues. Having a central kitchen will come in handy if product shortages present themselves, but Weber admits that other challenges are simply harder to forecast. “We have having a whole new set of ‘lessons learned’ now, and adaptability is a must,” he says. “If you try to do things the way you once did them, it’s not going to work. You can’t be afraid of trying things, and you have to be able to adjust very quickly.”

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