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ISD 196 is building a better school lunch

Fresh fruit choices are always available and they always go quickly during lunch at Shannon Park Elementary School.

Four years of work freshening up elementary school lunch menus has paid off with some nice recognition for Independent School District 196.

The district is the first in Minnesota to receive recognition in the United States Department of Agriculture's HealthierUS School Challenge to reward excellence in nutrition and physical activity.

The district was recognized at the silver level. There are also bronze and gold awards and gold awards of distinction.

Food and nutrition services supervisor Barb Griffith discovered the challenge four years ago and found support in the district to apply.

Getting local schools eligible was not a small task. It meant developing new recipes and taking a closer look at the foods the district served. Rules for the challenge require that districts serve at least one legume a week and that fresh fruits are available every day. They single out vegetables by color.

"We had to offer a dark green or orange vegetable three or more times per week," Griffith said.

The district had to increase the mount of whole grains it serves and ensure no entree has more than 600 milligrams of sodium.

"We have included more whole wheat grains in our menu. We have included more dark green, leafy vegetables and more raw vegetables that meet the criteria," Griffith said. "It is more expensive, but we have made the commitment that it's important for children."

The district has made a number of other changes, too. Last year it started offering more Minnesota-produced foods and working with food providers to give kids a better idea where their food comes from. For a squash promotion last November, cafeteria workers brought in spaghetti, butternut and acorn squash to let kids see what they look like. They served the butternut and acorn squash.

The district has introduced students already plenty familiar with baked beans and sticky white rice to anasazi beans and basmati rice.

Rosemount Elementary School food service manager Shannon Morrison joked that she's had to look up the spellings for some of the more exotic foods she's added to the menu.

All that change is risky with a population known for being picky eaters, but Morrison and Shannon Park Elementary School food service manager Michelle Durenberger both say kids have been open to experimenting. Durenberger said about 90 percent of SPES students eat school lunch each day, and Morrison said 88 to 89 percent of students eat school lunch at RES.

"Our numbers are as high as we've ever seen them," Durenberger said. "They're up 30 to 50 per menu from the beginning of the year."

Durenberger does what she can to keep kids interested in the new foods. From time to time she'll offer preview samplings of new foods that are being added to the menu. She also uses a white dry-erase board to pose food trivia questions she pulls from food-service web sites.

Griffith is thrilled with the HealthierUS recognition and she's happy to be helping students eat better. But she's just as excited to be introducing students to foods they might not otherwise get to experience. In some cases, she said, kids go home and ask their parents to serve one of the new foods they tried at school.

"That's really rewarding for us in food service to see that change," she said.