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School food goes gourmet
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Hopkins high school students line up for lunch at the Health Nut Cafe. (MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire)
The school lunch line -- that home to mystery meat casserole and other unique delicacies -- has gotten a radical makeover in the Hopkins school district. The Hopkins lunch rooms are starting to look more like mall food courts, with a variety of options for hungry students. And those options aren't just more appetizing, they're designed to be healthier -- made largely from scratch with all natural ingredients. District officials are also turning the revamped food service operation into a money-making enterprise.

Hopkins, Minn. — The long line outside the Health Nut Café attests to its popularity among Hopkins teenagers. The new sandwich bar opened in November in Hopkins High School. It features 12 natural ingredient breads, premium deli meats, dozens of fresh toppings. Grilled panini is a popular choice. Junior Allison Kunath is a regular customer.

"I feel like I'm doing something good for my body rather than getting chicken strips or some kind of gross pizza," Kunath said. "And it's something that I'd buy in a restaurant, like I'd spend more money on it somewhere else. So, the fact that I can get it here is really cool."

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Image Allison Kunath

Sophomore Ian Tarbox agrees. He says he likes eating healthy.

"You just feel like a lot better," Tarbox said. "You can tell that you kind of get burned out off the other food, where you can eat this every day and just really enjoy it a lot."

The school district's food service director, Bertrand Weber, converted an old snack bar and moved out the products loaded with sugar and trans fats. He added some atmosphere by spray-painting graffiti on the walls. There are five lunch lines at Hopkins high school, and participation is up overall this year. Weber says the Health Nut Café now accounts for more than one-third of those sales. "They still can have their chicken nuggets," Weber said. "They can have their fries, they can have their junk. That's still available. But we converted this into a really hip, uptown kind of spot."

Weber has a lot of changes in mind for the Hopkins school district. He is a former manager of restaurants and hotels, including the Whitney in Minneapolis, and brings a marketplace sensibility to the institutional kitchen.

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Image Bertrand Weber

Weber wants to raise the quality of school menus. He's added fresh fruits and vegetables. Kitchens are no longer places to warm up packaged foods. The staff is now cooking lasagna, casseroles, macaroni and cheese and other dishes. Weber says a facility remodeling at the high school will accommodate 100 percent scratch cooking next year, as well as after-hours dining for students and parents.

"And all this revolves around trying to educate our community that alternatives exist, as opposed to fast food and highly-processed food that's available at large to the community," Weber said. "We would like to remind them that there's an alternative and we'd like to provide that. So, it's really an extension of our education."

But eating healthier is also more expensive. Weber estimates the cost of feeding students will increase 20 to 25 percent. That's where Weber's business savvy and a new entrepreneurial enterprise fit in. He's a developing a catering operation and other public dining options in the schools. The Wetlands Cafe, scheduled to open this spring at the Eisenhower Community Center, will provide healthy take-out meals for busy parents.

"Very few people have time to go home and bake their chicken," Weber said. "And so what do we do? We open the box, we put in the oven and 10 minutes later it's ready. We recognize that. What we're trying to provide them is the same convenience, but an alternative, through a more fresh approach."

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Image Not mystery meat

There are 8,100 students in the Hopkins school district, 10 schools and five community centers. Superintendent Mike Kremer says he wanted students eating healthier and district facilities used more efficiently.

At a time of tight funding, he was also looking for alternative sources of revenue. Kremer says a recent bond referendum allowed the district to upgrade its food service facilities. He credits Bertrand Weber for providing the necessary enthusiasm.

"It's magic to watch him in kitchens, around both the adult learners, our staff, as well as kids," Kremer said. It's infectious. He flat-out loves what he's doing."

Bertrand Weber will describe the changes underway in Hopkins during a statewide gathering of school food service directors this week in St. Cloud. His presentation is part of the annual Food Exposition, sponsored by the Food and Nutrition Service division of the Minnesota Department of Education.

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