St. Paul’s Lunch Lady

I don’t know whether I was having a nightmare, but I recently woke up wondering what it takes to produce 48,000 meals a day. So I invited myself to the St. Paul Public Schools’ nutrition services headquarters to find out.

The answer, supplied in the person of Director Jean Ronnei, is nerves of steel. District 625 serves more than eight million meals and snacks per year on a budget of $17.9 million dollars, and the buck stops with her. Supplies arrive daily at the central facility near the fairgrounds. Here the food is prepared, then delivered to more than seventy schools with a fleet of only six vehicles. When I arrived at the 72,000-square-foot kitchen, I was met with evidence of Ronnei’s aide-de-camp efficiency. She had a manila folder with The Rake written on the tab, containing a sample of school lunch menus, stats (23,000 gallons of ketchup served annually), and a recipe for 1,200 pizzas.

In contrast to the frazzled, jumpy nature of restaurateurs trying to orchestrate a few hundred meals in an evening, Ronnei led me on my tour with the composure of someone who’s kept things well in hand for fifteen years. It may be her background in hotel hospitality that taught her to hide the sweat. But it was also clear she had nothing to hide. The place was spotless and running smoothly—no vulgar mechanics cursing seized-up mixer motors, no fetid heaps of waste, no vats of steaming Soylent Green. Among the eighty or so production machines on site, my favorite was “Wally,” a Brobdingnagian kettle in which 250 gallons of sweet-and-sour sauce simmered at exactly 180 degrees.

Many of St. Paul’s 43,000 hungry students eat breakfast, lunch, and after-school snacks at school, making the district the most important source of their daily calories. Presumably, this is a wretched fate. Oliver Twist would not have asked the beadle for seconds at my school. The memory of thin, rubbery burgers, glutinous casseroles, and flaccid green beans haunts the nation’s school cafeterias to this day. When Ronnei and I lunched at St. Paul Central High, site supervisor Pat Mergens, a twenty-three-year veteran of the trade, sat with us and recalled those dark days. “We pretty much never used a vegetable that wasn’t out of a can. Maybe a tossed salad every now and then. I liked meatloaf and mashed potatoes, so we made meatloaf and mashed potatoes.”

Times have changed, and school lunches have too. Today, for example, St. Paul schools consume 1,100 pounds of chili powder per year, and 3,700 gallons of jalapeños. Ronnei and I were treated to teriyaki chicken breasts on wild rice, broccoli au gratin, strawberries (frozen, but good quality), and French bread. There were five other entrée choices. Students weren’t throwing food; they were eating it. Trays carried past our table revealed the popularity of the breaded chicken patty. Kitchen manager Wanda Christianson boasted that since lowering the fat by eight grams and improving the quality of the meat, they’ve been putting out 450 patties a day.

It wasn’t hard to get opinions from the kids. “I’ve got something to say,” piped up Nathan Giles, a precociously bearded lad who had chosen the teriyaki chicken. “Public school food is really good. I enjoy it every day. The stereotype is, ‘Oh, the food in the schools is sooo bad.’ It’s not.” He looked around, surveying his classmates for contradictions they did not offer.

Ronnei asked what I thought of the food, even though she had already made it clear she answers to no one but the kids. “I have the greatest customers in the world. And the greatest job. Who could argue with the joy of feeding kids?” I only cook for two, but I wouldn’t dare.—Joe Pastoor