A federally funded program is helping Minnesota schools serve healthier food in their lunchrooms.
The Minnesota Department of Health is working with several public and private groups on the Great Trays Partnership. The program provides training and equipment to help schools improve their menus with fresh, nutritious food. The goal is to increase the fruits, vegetables and whole grains, while limiting fats and sodium. The program also encourages serving more local food, raised on Minnesota farms.
Great Trays is funded by a $2.3 million grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The program is intended to help reduce childhood obesity, which state health officials say has tripled over the past three decades. Seventeen percent of children in America are now obese.
Jim Koppel, Minnesota's deputy commissioner of Health, said a healthy school lunch can help fight childhood obesity.
"Obesity is the driver of not just bad lifestyle," said Koppel. "But it is going to put our health care system out of business here with cost. So we have to do something."
Koppel said the Great Trays program can promote healthy eating habits among children.
Those healthier foods are often more expensive. The program helps schools find joint buying groups in order to reduce cost. It also provides training on how to prepare kid-friendly food, since convincing students to try the healthy options can be a challenge.
Great Trays supervisor Kate Franken said providing a healthy lunch is especially important for low-income students, students who rely on free or reduced-price lunch.
"For kids who eat breakfast and lunch at school, and perhaps after school snack, up to 50 percent of their calories can be consumed at school in the cafeteria," she said. "So it's a huge opportunity to provide nutritious food to kids who need it the most. Sometimes it's the only good meal that they get for the day."
School officials at more than 1,000 Minnesota schools have participated in the program so far. Great Trays will provide more training for school cooks and menu planners next month.