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Several Minnesota & Wisconsin Schools Move Toward Healthy & Organic Lunches

Posted on Thu, Feb. 17, 2005

Food for thought

In Hopkins schools, the pizza is on whole-wheat crust, the milk is organic
and lunch sales are up.


Pioneer Press (St. Paul, MN)

To junior Hannah Glaser, Hopkins High School lunch is a typical school
lunch - only with more choices.

But to Hopkins School District officials, their school lunch is something
extra special: pizza on whole-wheat crusts, organic milk, an extensive salad
bar. The district's menu is higher in fruits and vegetables, legumes and
whole grains, and lower in fats and salts, than other school lunches most

That's good news at a time when the nation faces an obesity epidemic and
when a variety of voices, including public health officials and members of
Congress, are calling for better nutrition in homes and schools. And
Hopkins' effort is attracting attention, drawing food-service directors from
throughout Minnesota ‹ so many that the school has limited tours to once a

It's all about food choice and teaching kids to eat more healthfully, says
Bertrand Weber, director of Royal Cuisine, the district's food service.

"It's all about health," said Hopkins Superintendent Mike Kremer, who
credits his school board with bringing the new program to about 9,000
students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

In addition to the more wholesome pizza and sandwiches on whole-grain bread,
each day two fresh fruits and six fresh vegetables are served. About 75
percent of dishes are made from scratch or partly so rather than spilled
from a bag or a box. Vending machines dispense fruit juice rather than soda
pop. Chocolate chip cookies aren't sold for breakfast anymore.

Schools across the country are finding ways to bring better nutrition into
their cafeterias, said Karen Johnson, president of the national School
Nutrition Association.

But Hopkins and Appleton, Wis., schools stand out.

Appleton, which is about 30 minutes from Green Bay, began ridding school
kitchens of processed foods and began adding grains and fresh fruits and
vegetables about seven years ago. The effort earned a segment in the
controversial film documentary "Super Size Me.''

Appleton Food Service Director Peggy Panici has spoken with Hopkins
officials and applauds their efforts. "I was very impressed with what they
are doing there,'' she said.

Panici sees such efforts as part of a grassroots call for change from
schools, parent groups and health officials. Panici answers about a dozen
calls a month from people wanting to learn about Appleton's program.

But some food service folks worry about increased costs and the possibility
of serving foods that kids won't eat.

That frustrates Panici. "I get real tired of people saying, 'Kids won't eat
that,' '' she said. She said schools have to keep trying to dish up more
healthful meals.

At Hopkins, students notice that cheese sandwiches now are grilled on whole
wheat bread and that the vegetables are usually offered raw or steamed
rather than canned or frozen, says Michele Wignall, district nutritionist
and student dining director.

Some kids like the difference. A mother told Wignall that her young daughter
now insists her peanut butter and jelly sandwich be made on whole wheat
rather than white bread.

Other times, there is a learning curve.

"I'm into the healthy things,'' said Hopkins senior and swimmer Ian Itow,
piling his plate with fresh spinach and other salad fixings in the high
school's food court-like cafeteria.

"I'm not into grease," he said, settling in at a table where friend Ben
Israel was digging into a sloppy Joe, baked beans and french fries. Yes,
french fries are available at school, though serving portions are smaller.

Don't misunderstand, Wignall says. Students choose what to eat ‹ and they
can opt for high-calorie meals.

But at Hopkins, school lunch is about showing kids what a healthful diet
looks like, with lots of fresh foods and high fiber, Wignall said.

Junior Hannah Olson, dining on a spinach and blue cheese salad she bought
for about $1 at a health-food store where she works, said lunch still
doesn't seem very healthful. Olson said the pizza looks greasy and she sees
fellow students ordering "tons" of mayonnaise on their sandwiches.

Other high school students complain about the $2.50 price, up a quarter from
last year. Further, a la carte items such as chips with sea salt at $1 or
$1.25 are pricey, too.

Water comes in bottles only and costs $1. "That bothers me,'' Hannah Glaser

Still, Glaser, acknowledged, "you feel better" after eating the good stuff
rather than say, chicken nuggets and fries.

She chose veggie pizza with artichokes, feta cheese and kalamata olives for
a recent lunch. It's more healthful and more interesting than the ice cream
bar or bagel and cream cheese she used to eat at lunch.

At the high school, lunch sales are up from 700 a day in 2003-2004 to 1,200
to 1,300 daily, Weber said. A la carte sales are down about 10 percent.
"Instead of bagel and juice, kids are taking a complete meal,'' he said.

Marketing is part of the attraction for high school students. The food court
at the high school opened last fall as part of a larger remodeling project
funded in part by a bond referendum. The design allows for food stations
such as Health Nut Deli for made-while-you-wait sandwiches, the Tuscan Oven
for pizza and Ethnic Adventure for pasta and other more exotic dishes.

Hopkins' approach is drawing food-service tourists.

"I like the concept; I like what they're trying to do for kids. I just have
so many questions,'' said Barb Osthus, director of food and nutrition
services for South Washington County Schools. "I commend them for doing what
they're trying to do."

Some food service directors fear such lunches ‹ with fresh and organic
products ‹ will become too expensive for some students, though free and
reduced-fee lunch rates apply. About 20 percent of Hopkins students qualify
for those special rates.

And many keep asking if students will eat the food offered. That is a
significant concern because schools are paid state and federal dollars
according to the number of meals served.

Some recipes are a harder sell, Wignall acknowledges. Youngsters initially
turned up their noses at a squash and grain dish not long ago, but after the
staff passed out spoon-size samples, they dug into it.

Finding natural products can be a challenge, too, she said, because of the
quantity required.

Weber, who has 20 years of hospitality experience that includes working as
general manager of the Whitney Hotel in Minneapolis, said the program allows
for false starts. "We're committed to accepting more plate waste for three
years,'' he said.

Lunch service is "self-sustaining,'' Weber said, with funding from the
school nutrition fund, comprised of fees, federal and state reimbursement,
and a la carte sales.

Still, Hopkins' effort is one step toward "weaning" students and staff from
unhealthful food choices, said high school Principal Ron Chall, and
everybody deserves a sugary treat sometimes. Chall keeps a small stash of
candy bars and soda in his office.


€ Makes three-quarters of its foods "from scratch" or almost so.

€ Limits "branded" items, say pizza from restaurants.

€ Offers two fresh fruits and six fresh vegetables daily.

€ Serves whole grains such as wild rice, quinoa and barley at least four
times a month.

€ Serves legumes at least twice a month.

€ Downsizes portions of french fries, mashed potatoes and other potato

€ Offers organic and natural foods when possible, including milk.

€ Uses sugar rather than high-fructose corn syrup products when possible.

€ Uses locally grown products when possible.

€ District now provides food at athletic events, caters banquets and sells
take-home meals in the evening.