Company praised for tasty, healthy meals for schools

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack speaks under a tent during a driving rainstorm in Kenner on Wednesday. The visit was to highlight partnerships with the culinary community to enhance school lunches, improve childhood nutrition and prevent obesity to raise a healthier generation of Americans. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack speaks under a tent during a driving rainstorm in Kenner on Wednesday. The visit was to highlight partnerships with the culinary community to enhance school lunches, improve childhood nutrition and prevent obesity to raise a healthier generation of Americans.

Last spring, Mike Maenza expanded his food manufacturing business into schools, working to provide the community with nutritious, affordable and kid-friendly food options.

He started with one product — red beans with turkey sausage — and one school.

Today, MMi Culinary Services and CEO Maenza sell 12 different products to more than 200 schools in Jefferson and Orleans parishes and are expanding into schools throughout the state.

On Wednesday, the company’s latest enterprise into the world of public education brought U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to Maenza’s Kenner headquarters.

Starting as crawfish catering business in 1986, MMi now services 4,000 restaurants around the world and more than 100 grocery store chains.

“I’ll never forget this event,” Vilsack said from underneath a small tent in the middle of a torrential downpour that flooded nearby streets.

“What he have here is nothing short of amazing,” Vilsack said of MMi, repeatedly using the phrase “where culinary intersects with nutrition.”

Vilsack called MMi’s work a model that could be replicated throughout the country, also creating entrepreneurial opportunities and additional market opportunities for farmers and ranchers.

Vilsack detailed the USDA’s efforts in recent years to improve childhood nutrition, including changing laws to require healthy upgrades to school meals by adding fruits, vegetables and whole grains and reducing sugar, fat and sodium. He talked about summer feeding programs, providing incentives to shop at farmers markets, supporting new healthy retail options with grants and creating partnerships with chefs and food manufacturers such as MMi.

Feeding kids more nutritious food has vast effects not only on health, hunger and academic achievement but on future health care costs, Vilsack said.

There are national security implications as well in that many young people who are obese and have related health issues cannot serve in the military, he said.

A new father, Maenza’s eyes light up as he talks about his next hopes for “proactive” expansion into improving health — including educating parents, building a farm at which kids can participate in the growing process and creating products for infants and pregnant women.

Maenza said the food sold to schools, which is packaged in frozen bags to be dropped in boiling water, remains affordable because they are able to cook it in massive quantities using 300 gallon kettles.

He described the research and design process, which includes teams of culinary and nutrition experts, and, of course, kid taste-testers.

To keep kids both healthy and happy, the key is in the flavor profile, he said.

The researchers use a trial-and-error process to keep the flavor profile as close to the original, less-healthy version as possible by finding a variety of ways to tweak recipes and make substitutions.

There’s also “hidden health,” Maenza said, giving the example of sneaking carrots and kale into meat sauce.

“They have no idea they’re eating it,” he said.

Vilsack sampled a variety of MMi’s creations, including baked potato soup with turkey bacon, scrambled eggs and grits, white beans with turkey sausage and vegetable soup.

The food is nutritious, affordable, and most importantly, something kids want to eat, Vilsack said. He called MMi an “inspiring American story of entrepreneurism with vision and passion.”