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      Fresh, locally grown foods make difference for Minnesota students

      Posted on October 15, 2013 at 10:11 AM

      A local farmer picks Brussel sprouts from a school garden at Hopkins West Junior High.

      A local farmer picks collard greens from a school garden at Hopkins West Junior High.

      This Op/Ed originally appeared in the St. Cloud Times on October 12, 2013. By Commissioners Dave Frederickson, Department of Agriculture; Brenda Cassellius, Department of Education; Edward Ehlinger, Department of Health.

      Remember those thick slabs of greasy pizza from the school cafeterias of your childhood? How about the frozen processed-chicken nuggets or the popular “shake-and-French-fry” line? The food we serve our students at school shouldn’t look this way, and as schools in many parts of Minnesota know today, it doesn’t have to.

      More than 145 school districts in Minnesota have taken part in Farm to School programs that connect schools and local farms to serve healthful meals in school cafeterias, improve student nutrition, provide agriculture, health and nutrition education opportunities, and support local and regional farmers. In fact, 68 percent of Minnesota’s K-12 population attends a school that is involved in Farm to School in one way or another. Still, there is much more that can be done.

      Research has demonstrated students learn better when they’re well nourished. Healthful eating has been linked to higher grades, better memory, more alertness and improved health, leading to better school attendance. The choice of healthier options through Farm to School meals results in consumption of more fruits and vegetables in the school cafeteria and at home.

      This should come as no surprise: Farm-fresh products taste better, and it has been shown that children prefer them. Schools report up to a 16 percent increase in school meal participation when farm-fresh food is served. At a recent visit to schools participating in Farm to School programs, we saw students with plates heaping with fresh strawberries, cucumbers, Brussels sprouts and tomatoes that might have still been warm from the sun shining over the garden where they were picked.

      Students even get to know some of the local farmers who provide foods to the schools. Think about the unique learning opportunities that come with knowing who has grown the food that is on your plate. Then consider: should this experience be so unique?

      School food and nutrition professionals don’t think so. They know we can do better, and they are looking for ways to change the school-lunch paradigm. Often, it isn’t access to better food that is holding schools back; rather, it is access to quality equipment to efficiently prepare and cook the food on site.

      State agencies and nonprofits are working to address this need. In 2011, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture established a Farm to School grant program which helps school districts offset the costs of new equipment that enables them to prepare, serve and preserve more Minnesota grown foods. Last year about $227,000 was awarded to 13 Minnesota schools, and schools can now apply for a second round of funding this year.

      The Minnesota Department of Health is investing in Farm to School through the Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP). SHIP has thus far helped 440 schools with 235,000 students. In addition, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota committed $117,000 in matching funds to school districts last year and has committed $125,000 toward the program for the next round of funding. By using funds from the landmark 1998 settlement with the tobacco industry, Blue Cross is investing in the children of Minnesota.

      Farm to School grants provide schools with equipment that allows a food service worker to embrace being a chef, preparing food that tastes good and looks good. Step into any of these schools, and you will see happy food service workers who understand that they are an important part of a student’s success. The investments being made in these schools are making significant changes, and over time, they will change the way young people look at their food.

      Organizations like Blue Cross and Blue Shield see the long-term benefits of better food in schools. Educators see the clear benefits to the children in classrooms, and families notice it at home. In 2011, Minnesota school districts made Farm to School purchases of more than $1.3 million.

      If you have a chance, join your student for lunch at his or her school. Look around the cafeteria and notice what is on the plates. You may find that they are eating much better than you realized, or you may find empty calories, preservatives.

      Let’s aspire to do better. Encourage your school to apply for a Department of Agriculture Farm to School grant. And remember, teachers really do appreciate it when a student brings them an apple—especially when it was picked at a local Minnesota farm.