OWATONNA — October is Farm to School month, a time to celebrate connections between children and local food, and Owatonna’s public schools continue to seek avenues for more local food that can buttress the district’s already-healthy daily meal offerings.
The district is constantly working to get as many fresh fruits and vegetables as possible from local vendors, which, considering Minnesota’s climate, “can be difficult at times in the year,” said Alison Galzki, the district’s food and nutrition services supervisor. ”We’re always looking for ways to support local products and businesses.”
A couple years ago, the district procured a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture, as well as match-grant from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, and — between the two, plus the district’s contributions — the district was able to put $100,000 toward replacing and expanding the walk-in cooler and freezer at the junior high school, said Rachel Valesano, director of food and nutrition services for the district. “We were really fortunate,” as this added space allowed the district to purchase more local food.
For example, they formed a partnership with Ferndale Market, a free-range turkey farm out of Cannon Falls, she said. The district could purchase more turkey, a key source of protein, at a clip from Ferndale, and serve it more often.
In addition, the district procured a munificent amount of local tomatoes this summer, which they will use in dishes throughout the winter, Valesano said. Furthermore, they get their dough from The Dough Shop in Burnsville, and beans from St. Paul’s Captain Ken’s Foods.
Another assist has been the blossoming of “food hubs” around the state, including one in Mankato, Galzki said. Many farmers deliver to this site, with the food then going out to schools.
By looking local, “we have a personal relationship with producers, and they take pride in delivering us a quality product,” said Peter Grant, Owatonna superintendent. “We have better control over the products we’re purchasing and the products being produced—it’s a win-win opportunity for everybody.”
School lunches get a healthy makeover
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which was passed in 2010 and rolled out over the following few years, tightened the requirements regarding food served in schools, requiring “more complex planning” from school districts, Valesano said. Nutritional standards must be met weekly, with more fruits and vegetables — and more subgroups of those vegetables.
Furthermore, at least one item on the student’s plate has to be a fruit or a vegetable to be considered “a complete meal” by the federal government, she said, and a serving has to be at least half a cup.
Owatonna is dedicated to offering students choices, and those options expand as students age, she said. Elementary students are limited to the standard hot entrée of the day or a cold deli sandwich, but at OHS, there can be up to five different hot entrees on a given day, plus a salad bar and a line of standards like hamburgers and pizza.
However, even that seemingly less-healthy line is as salubrious as the district can make it, from whole-grain buns and fresh lettuce, to low-fat cheese and meat without filler, she said. And, of course, at every school, students are given myriad options among fruits and vegetables each day.
The 2010 legislation also promulgated “Smart Snacks,” meaning everything during the school day, from vending machines to fundraisers by school groups and organizations, must conform to the new federal guidelines, she said. In other words, the days of candy reigning in schools are over.
Each summer, the district taste-tests food with students, and winners then appear on menus the subsequent year, she said. Spicy and Asian foods are currently popular, so students will see items like sweet-and-sour chicken and orange chicken offered this year.
Striking a balance
Between the fact that 65 to 70 percent of meals served in Owatonna public schools are cooked from scratch, as well as their efforts to buy local and purchase higher-quality products, Owatonna probably spends more on food services than the average district, Valesano said, but it’s “a balance we try to strike.” After all, “we want the kids to eat the food, enjoy it and learn healthy habits they can hopefully take with them all their lives.”
Valesano has long been an “active member” of the Minnesota School Nutrition Association, including serving four years as public policy chair, because it’s “important to have a voice,” she said. As a dietitian, she’s focused on preventing conditions like diabetes, obesity and heart disease by helping children form lasting healthy habits.
The country is confronting a childhood obesity epidemic. Type-2 diabetes—once mainly restricted to adults—is now occurring more often in children and teenagers. Healthcare costs are spiraling out of control. “It’s also just a quality of life issue,” she said.
Indeed, a study published Thursday in The Journal of Pediatrics found that 75 children ages 10 to 18 with untreated high blood pressure performed worse on several tests of cognitive function, including tests of memory, processing speed and verbal skills, compared with 75 peers who had normal blood pressure, according to the New York Times. The researchers excluded children with learning disabilities and sleep problems, which can also affect cognitive skills.
“We know proper nutrition is important for brain development,” said Tom Sager, director of operations for the district. “That’s part of the reason we provide the quality of food we do.”
Despite the sometimes-additional costs for Owatonna Public Schools, “our food services [staff] is always looking for new ways to serve better food,” and in a fiscally responsible way, Grant said. Indeed, “we don’t take out of our general fund for food services, which is not the case in some other school districts.”
Because of the expansive space and equipment at OHS and OJHS, deliveries are made to those buildings, with couriers taking ingredients multiple times each day to the rest of the district’s schools, Valesano said. All the schools in the district do “on-site production.”
Food Services will be able to increase their efforts through the $78 million bond passed by voters in November of 2015, she said. Willow Creek, for example, will get a walk-in cooler and freezer, and the junior high kitchen will be refurbished to include a third serving line.
Valesano hopes this third line can be for a fresh salad bar. Currently, the high school offers a salad bar, but the junior high only has boxed salads.
Additionally, baking for the entire district is done at the junior high, from muffins and breads for breakfast, to dinner rolls and French bread for lunch, she said. “It’s pretty rare for districts to do as much fresh baking as we do.”
Galzki plans the district’s menus, and there are nutritional and portion standards for each age group, she said. Naturally, portions increase slightly as students age.
Favorites at the high school include the chipotle bar, where students can build their own burritos, but the salad bar is also popular, Valesano said. When she started in Owatonna nearly a decade ago, chocolate milk was offered at breakfast, but “we transitioned” to the point where it’s offered only at lunch, as “we look at it as a balance.”
Owatonna Public Schools even hosted a delegation of officials from Guatemala in September. They were able to tour the local facilities and also question staff members, including Valesano and Galzki, about the district’s food services as they look for ways to implement fresh, local and healthy food in their own country’s schools.
Equality for all students through school meals
The work that’s been done in recent years to attenuate tobacco use among youth can serve as a model for how to improve the nutrition in food served by schools, said Janelle Waldock, vice president of community health and health equity at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota and leader of their Center for Prevention, which concentrates on improving healthy eating in schools, increasing physical activity and reducing tobacco use. “Schools are an important venue because they are developing lifelong habits.”
They are also an area where the playing field can be leveled, she said. “In Minnesota, we face some of the biggest health inequalities across the country” along lines of race, income, geography and sexual orientation.
While Waldock believes healthy meals can be prepared at home without breaking the bank, “if you had enough time to shop and cook,” affordability and time “are barriers to healthy eating,” and those inequalities tend to be more pronounced based on socioeconomic status. It’s often the impoverished—where both parents are working, perhaps at multiple jobs—who lack the time and income to eat healthy; however, all children should be able to have the same healthy and nutritious meals at school, “a more controlled environment,” she said.
In the last five to 10 years, the Owatonna school district has taken a greater interest in the meals served to students, including—for example—removing much of the sodium from food, Grant said. Because over 80 percent of students at OHS are in at least one extracurricular activity, “we need to serve nutritional meals that build stamina to help them get through the school day and even after the school day.”
In addition, late last winter, the district began piloting an after-school snack program at OHS, opening up a line for a small selection of often-protein-rich selections, Valesano said. That’s continued this year, and the district is still gathering data on whether to keep—or even expand—the program.
There’s also the summer meals program, which provides breakfast and lunch to ensure students have an opportunity for one or more quality meals 12 months per year, Sager said. The district served over 12,000 meals this summer.
These meals are also paramount because a segment of the local school population may be hard-pressed to get such meals at home due to penurious family situations, Grant said. “We are the largest restaurant in town, and we probably serve the healthiest food in town.”
A matter of education
Nearly three-quarters of parents and guardians in Minnesota believe it is important or very important to offer additional resources to students facing disparities due to race, income, where they live, etc., according to a recent poll commissioned by the Center for Prevention at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. A preponderance of parents agree that providing students at least 20 minutes to eat (95 percent), offering nutritional education (90 percent), decreasing the amount of unhealthy food available during the school day (79 percent), and teaching students where their food comes from (78 percent) are paramount steps schools can take to ensure students learn about and eat healthy foods.
While the gains against tobacco among youth have been noteworthy, “much work still needs to be done” in terms of food selections in schools, Waldock said. “Eating is more complicated than tobacco, and we have to make choices every day.”
Though 93 percent of parents and guardians said there’s a connection between the health of students and their ability to learn and find success in school, and 68 percent say they have been generally supportive of past proposals to include healthier options in schools, only 12 percent of Minnesota parents and guardians have actively asked their schools to provide healthier options in schools, and 69 percent don’t believe or are unsure whether all Minnesota schools provide access to healthy food and physical activity during the school day, according to the Center for Prevention Poll. So, there’s a parental disconnect regarding health of children in Minnesota schools.
“I think it’s about individuals not feeling like they have the power to create change,” Waldock said. Part of the reason “we did this [poll] was to empower people to take action, as individuals or with a group of parents.”
“What’s happening outside the school day is always a challenge we’re facing,” Valesano said. The made-from-scratch, healthy meals students can get at school may not be what they’re getting at home.
Indeed, when Valesano surveys the lunchroom to see what students are bringing from home instead of accepting the school’s offerings, “it’s not usually good,” she said. “It’s kind of heartbreaking.”
The nutrition education component is really missing from schools in the state and across the country, she added. Too many students have no understanding of “why this fuel is better for me than that fuel.”
Currently, SNAP educators can go into schools and teach students about healthy products in schools where at least 50 percent of the population falls under the free and reduced lunch designation, said Andrea Kronbach, a SNAP educator for University of Minnesota Extension. Schools without that percentage can be served by University of Minnesota Extension educators.
Schools are also emphatic in their nutritional instruction that the goal is healthy bodies and brains, not dropping pounds or becoming a certain low weight, said Laura Perdue, an extension educator for University of Minnesota Extension. This line is especially pivotal to draw in high school and junior high, when so many students are concerned with their body image; the last thing schools want to do is drive students toward eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia.