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Reaching Minnesota's Hungry Kids Through Farm to School

February 28, 2011

WILLMAR, Minn. - During the school year, one Minnesota child in three relies on free or reduced-price school meals for two-thirds of their daily food intake, and yet many low-income children continue to go without the food they need.

In that situation, one popular nutrition initiative may help reach under-served kids. Stephanie Heim, Farm to School coordinator with the University of Minnesota Extension, says research has found when schools become engaged in Farm to School programs, school meal participation rates actually increase.

"Kids get excited about the local farm-fresh food that's being offered to them. Oftentimes this is paired with education and outreach with the students so they learn about where their food comes from and how it was grown. When they feel a connection to their food, they're often more likely to actually eat and taste the food."

Heim says Farm to School initiatives connect schools with local farms to serve healthy meals in school cafeterias, improve student nutrition, provide health and nutrition education, and support local small farmers in the process.

For a rural community, Willmar Public schools serves an increasingly diverse student body, and over half of their pupils are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Annette Hendrickx-Derouin, director of food and nutrition services, says Farm to School has been a great resource for Latino and Somali students, who make up a third of the district's population.

"They may or may not be familiar with some items that our other students would be, so it's important that we do that nutrition education, and agricultural education along with the program."

She says the district takes field trips to a local bison ranch and farm, and has regular educational activities to teach how different food items are grown, and what food products are made from them.

Considered a pioneer in the local Farm to School movement, Willmar Public Schools have been bringing locally-grown food to student lunch trays since 2004. Hendrickx-Derouin says they have intentionally started the program in the early grades.

"We primarily focused on our kindergarten through grade five program, because we felt that if we could impact what those students were eating, then we would have buy-in for the rest of the years they were in our school district."

Hendrickx-Derouin says their program has been sustainable because they incorporate food items the kids will actually eat. The district took a unique, and highly successful, approach to deciding what made it on the menu. Children taste-tested foods ranging from oven-roasted potatoes, to coleslaw, to wild rice blends, and then voted by placing their trays in bins labeled with happy or sad faces.

The University of Minnesota Extension offers an online Farm to School toolkit for school districts that includes menu planning, recipes and food safety tips, available at extension.umn.edu

Sharon Rolenc, Public News Service - MN