ROCKFORD, Minn. (WCCO) — On an early Tuesday morning, the only real sound in Rockford High School’s cafeteria is the sizzle of a large pan loaded with vegetables. Chef Harlan Adelman is preparing mirepoix for soup and sandwich day.
“I know when I went to school we had two choices – take it or leave it,” Adelman laughed.
Rockford High School is about as west as you can get in Hennepin County. The school has about 500 students, but even with its small size, lunch here doesn’t come from a can or a box or a central cafeteria. It’s made fresh in the school.
“When I started here, I was really surprised how much I get to use fresh vegetables in the school and play around with my own recipes too,” he said.
Adelman works for Twin Cities-based food service company Taher. Rockford Schools contracts with the company to run its cafeterias. Taher sources the food, plans the menu, and provides the chef.
“They have a lot of experience in what works for school lunches, what students like and what they don’t like, plus they have relationships with farmers and suppliers,” said high school principal Paul Menard.
The whole system, like so many school lunch programs today, is based around choice. Students half to grab a half-cup of vegetables and fruits as part of the rules of the federal school lunch program, but how they get there is up to them.
Students also go through a station where the chef serves up fresh chicken soup, and they get to add a veggie mirepoix, tomatoes with basil, jerk potatoes, or charred broccoli.
“They care about what they put into their bodies, and they want to have a say in it,” Menard said.
Adelman worked in hotels, restaurants, and owned his own catering company. Now that he’s a dad, he said he was drawn to making delicious school lunch.
“In the school, the energy is fantastic,” he said. “I was told I’d be a cross between a rock star and Santa Claus and some days that’s absolutely true.”
Indeed, you can follow Adelman on Instagram, where kids sometimes give suggestions about possible lunch entrees.
Along with sourcing from local farmers, like turkey grower Fernbrook Farms in Cannon Falls, Taher has a partnership with Fork Farms, a Wisconsin company that makes compact hydroponic gardens.
“That’s about as fresh as it gets when its 30 feet away,” Adelman said.
The garden sits in the cafeteria, glowing with florescent lighting, and feeding the plants with pH-balanced water. Rockford’s ag and FFA students help maintain the plantings of lettuce and herbs, which then get used in school lunches.
“It tastes amazing and is different. Once students have tasted it, they can’t believe it,” said Judy Cameron, the senior vice president for Taher, Inc.
Taher runs school and business cafeterias around the country, and have placed more than 40 of these hydroponic gardens in schools. They also connect Rockford Middle School kids with a local farmer for a fall corn fest.
“They can see how it comes from the field to us, to husking it, to fixing it, then they get to eat it for lunch,” Cameron said.
From the “celebrity” chef, to the innovative garden, it’s just one more way school lunch in Rockford is nothing like it used to be.
“I try different foods and vegetables, and the best compliment is when a kid says, ‘Chef, I don’t know what this is, but I loved it!’” Menard said.