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Helping students learn to make the healthy choices

Fourth-graders Laura Kassel, left, and Destany Taylor eat school lunch Wednesday at Kennedy Elementary School in Willmar. Fruit and yogurt parfaits are among the healthy options school cafeteria staff are trying to incorporate into daily lunches and snacks at the schools. The sausage is made with turkey. A new grant also allows one fresh fruit or vegetable snack daily outside scheduled lunchtime. (Tribune photo by Gary Miller)

Kids can't always be counted on to make the healthier food choice when making their way through the school cafeteria line. But Willmar Public School's food and nutrition services have made healthy options the norm -- not the exception -- with healthy eating programs and grants designed to provide students with the basis for sound nutrition.

"We want healthy eating to become the established norms for students," said Annette Derouin, food service director for Willmar Public Schools.

Students in the Willmar School District have no choice but to fill up on healthier versions of their favorite foods. Nutrient-rich brown rice has replaced white rice on the serving line and whole grain breads are now served in lieu of enriched white breads. Even chocolate chip cookies underwent a whole grain makeover.

"Students don't even think about the healthy choices they are making," Derouin said.

Cafeteria food isn't exactly synonymous with healthful, but Derouin and her staff have tweaked recipes to make cafeteria favorites -- prepared from scratch -- much healthier than those offered from a food service vendor.

The schools' oven-roasted potatoes, prepared with a made-from-scratch blend of herbs and spices, were developed by staff to replace the highly-processed potato typically associated with cafeteria fare. Taco meat, flavored with the school's own taco seasoning, was given a nutritional boost by adding refried beans. Spaghetti sauces and lasagna are also prepared from scratch in the school's kitchen.

Not only are dishes prepared from scratch far healthier than frozen varieties, they are more cost effective, said Derouin.

Through a grant made possible by the Minnesota Department of Education, fruits and vegetables are being introduced to students in unique ways beyond the lunch line. The grant allows Kennedy and Roosevelt Elementary to serve one fresh fruit or vegetable to classrooms daily outside of scheduled lunch time. And these fruits and vegetables aren't exactly of local garden variety: rutabagas and jicama sticks are just a few examples of fresh produce the kitchen staff prepares and delivers daily to classrooms outside of lunch time.

Cafeterias across the school district also participate in Minnesota's Farm-to-School program, which connects local farms to school cafeterias in providing locally grown produce for students. Derouin said the district aims to provide a new local produce item three to four times a month. Students are served a variety of local produce throughout the fall: apples, tomatoes, sweet corn and potatoes. In the winter season, the program serves more season-appropriate local fare, such as wild rice and dried beans.

Healthy initiatives taken by food and nutrition services have allowed the district to apply for competitive grants with stringent qualifications. According to Derouin, the district has been proactive in providing healthy options long before UDSA tightened its standards on health requirements.

The food service staff understands that not all healthy food will be an instant hit with students, which is why they encourage feedback from students, parents and teachers.

"What's new Wednesdays" is a day when Derouin and her staff may introduce one new menu item to students to sample in advance. If students approve, the staff will find ways to incorporate the new item in future menus.

"We're continually trying to offer new menu options students will like," Derouin said. "Our objective is to feed students, not garbage cans."

Students are taking a liking to the school's menu offerings: 97 percent of students at Kennedy Elementary choose school lunches over a bagged lunch from home.

It's also important to encourage healthful habits even after the bell rings.

Tiffany Krogstad, a registered dietician and wellness director at Bethesda in Willmar, said it's important for parents to model a healthy lifestyle by practicing healthy eating and encouraging physical activity. Krogstad recommends keeping healthy snacks such as fresh fruits and vegetables readily available in the home. Krogstad said childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years.

Often, school lunch programs take the brunt of child obesity blame, but in reality Derouin points out that only 172 of 365 lunches are provided by schools. The majority of healthful decision-making falls on the parents.