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Willmar, Minn., elementary schools recognized for promoting healthy choices

First-grade students Danunte Sasse, 7, left, and Ethyn Grabow, 6, eat their lunches Wednesday at Roosevelt Elementary School in Willmar. Roosevelt has joined Kennedy Elementary School as winners of the Department of Agriculture’s Gold Award for their efforts to makes school menus healthier and for promoting physical activity. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR — Kennedy and Roosevelt elementary schools in Willmar have received the Gold Award in the HealthierUS School Challenge.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced 158 award winners in 19 states for the 2012 awards.

The winning schools will carry the award for four years, from January 2013 through January 2017.

The awards recognize the work school and nutrition department officials have put in to meeting federal guidelines and scheduling the school day to include physical activity.

The K-5 elementary schools face many scheduling challenges, including finding time to feed roughly 950 students in each building every day.

The schools were recognized for leadership and teamwork in making changes to their schools’ menus, for providing students information about nutrition and healthy food choices and for promoting physical activity.

As Gold Award winners, each school will receive a plaque and banner to display and a monetary award of $1,500. Burnsville’s 10 elementary schools were also chosen for the Gold Award of Distinction, which carries a $2,000 award.

Heritage E-STEM Middle School in West St. Paul previously won the Gold Award. Seven elementary schools in Bemidji have previously received the Gold Award of Distinction.

Annette Derouin, director of food and nutrition services for the Willmar School District, said the district has applied for the award before and fell just short.

“It’s a long process,” she said. The application was submitted nearly a year ago.

Michelle Sagedahl, the district’s nutritionist, worked on completing the application. The schools had to provide menus, food nutrition labels, recipes and kitchen reports along with information about nutrition education efforts and descriptions of physical activity opportunities during school days.

The district’s menus already met new federal nutrition guidelines, so very little adjustment was made for the application, she said.

The schools won the Gold Award because students receive 140 minutes of physical activity in a week. For the higher award, 150 minutes a week was needed.

Derouin said she believes the schools do a good job of providing physical activity with the tight scheduling they have.

“They’ve done what they could in the way they schedule the day to get kids activity,” she said.

The monetary awards can be used to fund nutritional education materials or purchase phy ed equipment, she said, “and it’s national recognition.”

Lunch schedules

While the USDA awards may signal sound efforts in nutrition and keeping children active, parents sometimes express concern about the 15 minutes available for children to eat in the K-5 elementary schools.

Cafeterias have been remodeled to double the number of serving lines, but neither cafeteria was designed to serve the roughly 950 students attending each elementary school.

“It’s a challenge,” Derouin said. “If they stay on task, they can eat.”

Kennedy, which was a high school at one time, was designed to feed 400 to 450 students, because the high school had an open lunch period, Derouin said.

At Roosevelt, the cafeteria was designed for 650 students when it was built 25 years ago, said Principal Nathan Cox. The building has seen three additions since then, he said, but the cafeteria size hasn’t changed.

Roosevelt serves students from 10:50 a.m. to 1:35 p.m., he said, in 15-minute shifts, 80-90 students at a time. The cafeteria is only half full during each shift, while the other half is sanitized according to regulations to prepare for the next shift, Cox said.

That schedule also keeps the playground from having too many children on it at one time, he said.

“We definitely know a few more minutes would probably be ideal,” Cox said, but he’s noticed most kids can finish their meals in 10 to 15 minutes. “Kids who need more time absolutely are allowed to stay and finish,” he added.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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