Healthy Eating, Healthy Habits

Learn how this Minnesota district transformed school food through the School Food Support Initiative program

  • 10 Years, School Food Operations, Grants
  • January 23, 2019
  • By: Allison Ildefonso
  • Comments

Child nutrition has become a top priority at Fridley Public Schools in Minnesota. In 2017, Fridley was selected as a program recipient for Chef Ann Foundation’s School Food Support Initiative (SFSI) (now, Get Schools Cooking) program based on their commitment to improving the quality and nutrition of school food served throughout the district.

This initiative was spearheaded by Mary Mueller, Director of Nutritional Services, who has been pushing the importance of school food and student wellness since she took on her role seven years ago.

“Mary’s passionate about the work that she does, and has moved us forward in lots of [ways],” says Matt Hammer, Director of Finance.

Director Mueller notes that when you work in school food service, it’s not just children you’re communicating to. “There are so many different layers to school food service,” Director Mueller says. “It’s our community, our parents, our staff. We’re constantly educating everyone about what we do and why we do it, what our challenges are.”

After joining the team at Fridley in 2012, Director Mueller became involved with School Food FOCUS, an initiative of the National Good Food Network aimed at improving the supply chain for healthier school food. Mueller was invited to attend a two-day school food conference in 2015, where she met our very own Chef Ann Cooper. After meeting Chef Ann and learning about the SFSI program, Director Mueller put all her efforts into applying and gaining the support needed to transform the school food in her district.

A Step in the Right Direction

Director Mueller and Director Hammer hoped to be chosen for the program to get an extra “boost”—“to not only look at what we’d been doing to see if we’re on the right track, but also get that lens of expertise that Chef Ann provides,” Director Hammer says. Fridley Public Schools was awarded the SFSI grant and became part of the 2017 cohort. According to Director Hammer, CAF was able to launch Fridley to the next level to further develop their long term plans for more fresh, whole school food.

And the program could not have come at a better time for Fridley. Prior to Director Mueller applying, district officials had already started renovating their kitchen facilities and had plans for major maintenance on equipment that was at least 50 years old. “We’d been looking at scratch cooking and all those pieces, but how do you actually get that delivered in your schools in an operation that’s sustainable?” Director Hammer questioned. The answer would come through CAF’s assessment, which offered a lens through which Director Hammer and the rest of the district could see things from a fresh yet comprehensive  perspective.

At the start of the program, the district’s operational model involved a combination of simple scratch cooking and heat-and-serve, requiring some but not all the equipment it takes to successfully execute a scratch-cook model. Not only did the district have to think about equipment and their facilities but the program also demonstrated how items like financial tracking and standard operating procedures could help them further enhance their program. But not all of this was easy. “Sometimes it’s hard work to do what’s right for kids instead of just doing the easy thing. That was the nice thing about the grant,” Mueller says. “The Chef Ann Foundation made us realize that there are steps to perfecting this and it’s going to take a while, so [we shouldn’t] beat ourselves up.”

Not only did the program guide the district in transitioning to a scratch cook operation, it also forced her and her team to ask important Why questions. Some of those questions included: Why are we serving this? Why do we buy this particular item? Why do we do production like this instead of like this? “We evaluate from lots of different standpoints now instead of, ‘What’s the most popular, current frozen pizza we should serve?’” For Director Mueller, working through all these steps while asking these questions were a powerful and valuable combination.

Better Nutrition, Better Learning Habits

According to the American Psychological Association, establishing healthy eating habits early in your child’s life can lead to good behavior as they move into adulthood. And at Fridley this is of the utmost importance.

“One of our top priorities here at Fridley is to make sure we’re improving academic achievement and nutrition,” Director Hammer says. “Making sure kids are starting out in a good spot here is one of the key pieces to [meeting] those goals.”

Fridley's universal breakfast and second chance breakfast helps ensure students have “that foundational block of not being hungry when trying to learn,” says Director Hammer. “It’s that whole-student outlook: what are the pieces that need to be in place for students to be successful in the classroom? Proper nutrition’s a huge piece of that.”

Since the district started offering new opportunities for students to fill up on nutritious food, teachers have attested to an improvement in student engagement and concentration, especially at the elementary levels.

On top of that, Director Mueller was able to take on the challenge of doing things differently, learning the ins and outs of school food reform in her district and continuously improving school nutrition.

“It really pushed us to make changes that benefit kids; to continue to do that every single day,” Director Mueller says of the SFSI grant. “We have a different mindset now when we evaluate products or roll out a recipe.” One of the items the district looks for now is whether a product contains what the Life Time Foundation refers to as the Harmful 7 (Trans Fats & Hydrogenated Oils, High-Fructose Corn Syrup, Hormones & Antibiotics, Processed & Artificial Sweeteners, Artificial Colors & Flavors, Artificial Preservatives, Bleached Flour). As a partner of SFSI, Life Time Foundation’s support helps districts remove these ingredients alongside their move to increased scratch cooking.

Progress and Hope for the Future

The most important part of this work, Director Mueller says, is the long-term benefits that Fridley students reap by having access to healthy food and nutrition education—a new understanding of where food comes from and what real food is. Because 65 percent of the district’s student population is free and reduced, school lunch is often the only fresh, scratch-cooked food many of these children receive in a day. This makes marketing and education doubly important.

“Kids really need to know what real food tastes like and that fresh is best,” Director Mueller says. “Now our kids realize that frozen vegetables are not the norm; roasted, fresh vegetables are the norm.”

Since 2017, Director Mueller and her team have also implemented taste testings, from which they fine-tune recipes and receive feedback through sampling with the kids.

While the district has made great progress, they still have their sights set on more changes. Right now, they are working with local partners and chefs to help them develop more main dish recipes. “Our focus in 2019 is entrees and more fresh, from-scratch entrees.”

Fridley’s story is just one example of how hard work and determination, combined with the right resources and funding, can truly transform students’ lives. For the kids at Fridley Public Schools, this means more fresh, whole, scratch-cooked food, nutrition education, and excitement around eating healthy.

To learn more about our School Food Support Initiative (Get Schools Cooking) program, click here. The application will re-open in August/September of this year—stay connected on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and be the first to find out!

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