By Jason DeRusha

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — You might expect a machine pumping cup after cup of orange curry vinaigrette to be in a salad dressing factory. You probably wouldn’t expect it inside the headquarters of a school district’s food program.

“We’re very lucky, we really are,” Bertrand Weber, head of nutrition services for Minneapolis Public Schools, said.

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His kitchen makes 50,000 meals a day, and his new cupping machine can pump out 50,000 cups of salad dressing in just a couple of hours.

Weber has been trying to get the preservatives out and the nutrients in every meal in every school. Two years ago he asked the Minneapolis-based Life Time Foundation for help.

“They said, ‘What if we provided you the tools?’ I said that would be the right step. Then they said, ‘Think bigger, what else do you need?'”

About $550,000 later, he has industrial mixers that pump dressing into the cupping machine. He has an automated fruit slicer that washes, cuts, and preserves fresh fruit to be delivered to schools. A vegetable chopper-food processor also helps the school save money by buying in bulk as opposed to buying pre-sliced produce.

“We’re doing 300 pounds of diced onion, carrots, celery for a recipe like chicken a la king. So with this we can buy the whole thing in bulk and do it ourselves,” he said.

The grant provided money for a vacuum sealer and a 500-gallon industrial sous vide machine. They’re making pork carnitas by using a federal grant to buy commodity pork and then slowly cooking it in a bath of water.

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The machine can handle up to 1,400 pounds of pork or turkey.

“Believe it or not, that’s only half our need, considering our volume,” Mark Augustine, executive chef for Minneapolis Public Schools, said.

The sous vide machine also cuts down on food waste. Traditional roasting lets juices drop out of the meat, resulting in a loss of up to 15 percent of the original cut of meat. With sous vide and the vacuum-sealed bag, Weber says “all the natural juice stays in the bag, and you don’t lose anything. It’s awesome.”

Most Minneapolis Public Schools don’t have kitchens, don’t even have real sinks. The Life Time Foundation grant allows the central kitchen to save money, and cook with fewer trans fats, hormones, and artificial junk.

So far, the Life Time Foundation has impacted 330 schools by giving out $2 million in grants to Boulder Valley Schools, Colorado, Detroit, Michigan, and Minneapolis. The foundation’s goal is to eliminate what it calls “The Harmful 7” — trans fats and hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, hormones and antibiotics, processed and artificial sweeteners, artificial colors and flavors, artificial preservatives, and bleached flour.

The Minneapolis effort is now serving as a model for school districts around the country.

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“Going back to scratch cooking, to whole food, is providing kids as many tools as possible for them to succeed, and setting them up for a healthy life,” Weber said.

Jason DeRusha