Traditional Foods Meet Modern Tech: School Food in St. Paul

September 05, 2013

In St. Paul, Minn., new ways to reach a diverse student body.

In Minnesota's Saint Paul Public Schools (SPPS) district, school food service is adapting to a changing world, a changing student body and changing tastes. The goal is to offer an array of healthy, delicious and diverse menu options that reflect a diverse, post-millennial student population.

To engage students digitally, the district uses interactive, online menus with important facts about food nutrition and content. “Parents can use these tools to encourage healthy choices and help their students plan their meals, and school nurses can be made aware of potential allergens,” says Monica McNaughton, Assistant Director of School Nutrition at SPPS. Students can also review carbohydrate counts, which is useful for diabetic students needing to manage that condition.

It’s one step towards meeting the needs of St. Paul’s incredibly diverse student body. In a district of roughly 39,000 students, more than 120 languages and dialects are spoken, and the area is home to immigrant families from all over the world. To engage parents, especially parents from immigrant communities, SPPS dining staff introduced “Parent Night at the Nutrition Center” last year. Parents were invited to tour the facilities, sample school meals and participate in a nutrition education course to connect lessons from school to home and increase knowledge about the school meal program. As McNaughton puts it: “It is all about connections.”

Adjusting to its students’ many palates, SPPS will refocus efforts on creating healthy and delicious dishes inspired by the cultures and traditions of its students, from Hmong-inspired beef and rice dishes to Somali Chicken Suqaar with Vegetables. To determine which meals will be best-received, school dining staff conduct taste tests and focus groups with students.

 

Cultural traditions and flavors aside, students’ taste preferences overall are changing. “Even 10 years ago in the upper Midwest, we didn’t have restaurants like Chipotle or Subway where you could have food made-to-order fresh in front of you,” McNaughton says. “When families go out to eat now, even fast food, they like to see fresh fruits and vegetables. This isn’t a ‘meat-and-potatoes’ generation.”

With taste preferences shifting towards fresh ingredients and made-to-order, customizable plates, the district is rolling out “Choice Bars” that mimic this new dining experience. Students can go through the line and select salad greens, raw vegetables and bean salads to make healthy school lunches that match their tastes and preferences. McNaughton says the introduction of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act increased momentum for these kinds of innovations.

McNaughton says the district was an early adopter of new healthy school lunch regulations, using the Institute of Medicine’s guidelines before the updated USDA standards came into effect last year, and St. Paul Public Schools will continue to make incremental changes. So far, students have responded positively to the changes. Last year, the district saw high participation in breakfast and lunch.  It all adds up to a big impact — healthier food for the nearly 40,000 students in the state’s largest school district.

Read more in HSC's School Food blog series: