Building a healthy student body

Connie Thompson didn't eat the lunches served in the school cafeteria when she was a child. "I had home lunch, because I was picky," she said. How things have changed. Thompson, head cook at Roosevelt Elementary in Willmar, now spends lunchtime p...

Connie Thompson didn't eat the lunches served in the school cafeteria when she was a child.

"I had home lunch, because I was picky," she said.

How things have changed. Thompson, head cook at Roosevelt Elementary in Willmar, now spends lunchtime persuading skeptical kids to try new foods. She is part of a team of staff members working to improve the health and fitness of Roosevelt students.

The effort appears to be paying off.

The school was recognized a week ago as a Governor's Fit School by the Minnesota Department of Health. This week, Principal Patti Dols learned that Roosevelt received a $10,000 federal grant to develop a fitness and nutrition education program in the cafeteria.


The award recognizes schools that teach students about nutrition, offer nutritious foods, and provide opportunities for physical activity throughout the day.

So far, only 30 schools in 15 districts have earned the designation.

That number is expected to rise as more schools complete wellness policies, a requirement for the designation, said Shawn Holmes, who oversees the Fit School program for the Health Department.

Holmes said she tried to develop requirements that would not be too difficult for schools but would require some deliberate effort. "I didn't want it to be a freebie," she said. "I wanted it to be an investment for them."

Physical education teacher Jenyne Beehler and Dols heard about the award earlier this year and decided to apply.

For Roosevelt, an investment in wellness over the past few years made applying for the award an easy decision.

"This whole award is really about stuff we have been doing," Beehler said.

"It's also a reflection of how well we are working between departments," Dols said.


The last piece needed for the application was the district's wellness policy. The final draft of the policy is finished and will be presented to the School Board in April.

Dols said she has urged other Willmar schools to submit applications, since the district is already doing many of the things required by the program.

Physical activity comes in a variety of forms at Roosevelt. Students have physical education classes and also get recess time before or after they eat lunch.

The other day, some of Beehler's students were practicing archery on one side of the divided gym. Next door, students were bowling and learning how to fill out score sheets.

The school's kitchen staff keeps looking for ways to include whole-grain foods in the menu, Thompson said. They serve a mixture of brown and white rice, and they plan to try whole-wheat pasta soon.

"You've got to kind of coax them," when a new food is introduced, Thompson said. Sometimes, she'll try to get a student to take just a little taste of a food they've turned away from. "I tell them, 'If you don't like it, you don't have to finish it,'" she said.

'Healthy foods every day'

On Thursday, students ate sloppy joes on wheat buns and scooped the juicy green flesh from halves of kiwi. Some took advantage of the salad bar offered that day, too.


A group of sixth-grade girls enjoyed their lunch, which also included french fries which were actually baked, corn and milk.

"They serve healthy foods every day at our school," said Jessica Kraemer, as she took a bite of her sandwich. Even if one part of the meal doesn't seem all that healthy, it's surrounded by other foods that are, she added.

Asked how they liked the kiwi, Jeanette Gutierrez looked around and said, "They had kiwi?" She reached over to "borrow" a piece from Karina Puentes, who didn't seem to mind that she only had one chunk left.

The girls said they notice the healthy foods they're given and appreciate having good choices.

"Usually, if you don't want to eat the other food, there's a salad bar," Karina said.

Karina said she particularly liked the fresh pineapple they tasted one day. Jeanette mentioned watermelon as one of her favorites.

They have healthy breakfasts, too, the girls said. They often have cereal, or cereal bars, added Isabel Ramirez.

Encouraging wellness


Roosevelt's current "Fabulous Food & Fitness" program has given the school's fourth, fifth and sixth grade students a start on learning about nutrition. "Some kids didn't know what fruits and vegetables are," Beehler said.

Thompson said that will change as nutrition education programs expand. The new federal grant should help with that.

Marilyn Bolin, coordinator of the Steps to a Healthier Willmar program, said she sought the grant for Roosevelt because the kitchen staff was interested in participating in education efforts.

The grant will give students the chance to try more new foods, Bolin said.

There's a possibility of an after-school program to help kids make the connection between good nutrition and physical activity.

What To Read Next
Get Local