Schools on front lines in obesity battle

Bison burger
Senior John Scheevel enjoys a bison burger at Winona High School on Monday, March 15, 2010.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

If you want to see the future of healthy school lunches, head out to the muddy fields of Gail Griffin's bison ranch.

"It was a hard winter, it really was," said Griffin, who raises grass-fed animals on her farm outside Winona. "We never had a January thaw. They handle it quite well, yet nutritionally, the grasses weren't available to them."

Making sure the animals have enough nutrition is important, because they soon could become food for school children. One of the places Griffin sends the meat is Winona High School, just a few miles away.

That makes Winona one of the few but growing number of schools in Minnesota that serve bison burgers.

"Nutritionally it's lower in fat and cholesterol, both, than even a skinless chicken- when you compare ounce to ounce," she said. "It's higher in iron and a real good source of vitamin B's - because it's a grazing animal."

Addressing the nutritional value of school lunch programs is a priority for the nation's schools, as many children eat two of their three meals each day at school. Critics of school food programs say they are notorious for serving low-quality, cheap, processed food.

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The school lunch program has a long way to go, but there have been some attempts to improve the quality of the food. Among them is the movement to team nearby small and mid-size farmers with local schools to provide fresh vegetables, fruits and meats.

Sloopy joes for school lunches
Workers scoop sloppy joe into containers at the Minneapolis School District's main nutrition building on March 11, 2010. Meals are prepared, wrapped and sent from here to schools for heating and distribution.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

During just the first six weeks of the 2009-2010 school year, St. Paul Public Schools purchased 110,000 pounds of locally grown produce, primarily from farms in Minnesota and Western Wisconsin. Minneapolis schools also have made some improvements to their menus, most notably removing all fryers from schools so french fries are no longer available. Cookies have also been removed from menus.

The improved menus are attracting attention. In Winona, students seem to like having bison burgers on the menu.

"It tastes great; I like it a lot," said junior Evan Draves, 16. "It's a little bit different but not very far off, I guess."

Hamburgers and chicken patties are still staples of Winona's lunch menu, and students can still get cookies and other sweets. But the district is gaining a reputation for being on the forefront in the quest to redefine the school lunch in Minnesota.

"We're trying to increase fiber, reduce fat, eliminate trans-fats, reduce sodium," said Lyn Halvorson, Winona's food service director. "We buy a lot of whole grain products, and we do a lot of what I call 'sneaky cooking.' The kids don't know always know that our pizza crust - even though it looks like a white crust -- is a whole grain crust."

One effort called Farm to School connects schools with nearby farmers as providers of at least some food. Three years ago, Winona only served locally-grown apples. Menus now include locally-grown potatoes, grain, and of course bison.

School breakfast sandwiches
Pre-wrapped breakfast sandwiches, at the Minneapolis School District's main nutrition building where meals are prepared, wrapped and sent to schools for heating and distribution.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

The obesity epidemic has schools on the front line in the war against wider waists and the health problems that come with them.

If current trends continue, one out of every three children born today will face a future with diabetes. A new study of more than 700,000 children in California found more than 7-percent of boys and 5-percent of girls fall into the category of most extreme obesity.

School officials like Ann Hoxie say one hope is that healthier food will also be tastier. She supervises health and wellness for St. Paul Schools and remembers growing up a picky eater.

"And if they caught you putting your stew in your half-finished milk, you had to eat it out of carton.

"I have horrendous memories of being a kid."

Jean Ronnie, St. Paul School District
Jean Ronnei, director of Nutrition & Commercial Services for the St. Paul School District, stands in front of students gathering for lunch at Battle Creek Elementary
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

But Hoxie proclaims a new day for school cafeterias. The lunch line at Battle Creek Elementary includes one entree for everyone. But students also have to walk past a salad bar and can take however much they want there. Don't be surprised to find things like jicama, squash and steamed broccoli alongside apples and carrots.

As for improvements, Minneapolis Food Service director Rosemary Diederichs says cutting sodium will be a huge challenge for her district.

"People like to call it airline food, which we don't like to hear because we know we're better than that," Diederichs said. "But we're on the path. Are we there yet? No, absolutely not."

Not 'being there' yet has caused at least one family to abandon school lunches. Robin Pillmann, a junior at Central High in St. Paul, no longer takes lunch money to school. But that's okay with Robin. He recently created a Facebook page titled "School Food Sucks".

He laments his options, like those rib sandwiches the cafeteria recently served.

"It's pretty much ground beef in barbeque sauce, stamped into a patty to make it look like there's rib in it," Pillmann said. "I find the school lunches so detestable, it just makes me feel gross when I eat at school."

A menu posted on the St. Paul School district website confirms those rib sandwiches had more calories and fat grams than anything else on the high school menu that day.

Battle Creek Elementary salad bar
This lunch line at Battle Creek Elementary in St. Paul is set up to force all students to walk past a salad bar, where they can take as much of any item as they want.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

But JoAnne Berkenkamp isn't so sure that's entirely the district's fault.

For one, Berkenkamp, of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, notes that current federal law only includes a calorie minimum for school lunches, not a calorie cap.

More importantly, Berkenkamp says schools are fighting an uphill battle against the fact that a lot of unhealthy food is cheap and they have to feed a lot of kids.

Agricultural policy in the United States aims to provide food at the lowest possible cost, which has merits but often also includes a loss of quality, she said.

"And as school funding has been squeezed, often the schools have very few choices but to use those lower-cost options - through no fault of their own," said Berkenkamp, the institute's program director for local foods.

That's why St. Paul nutrition director Jean Ronnei celebrates small victories, like incorporating more brown rice and taking some iceberg lettuce out of salads and replacing it with romaine and spinach.

Rosemary Diederichs, Minneapolis Schools
Rosemary Diederichs is director of food services for Minneapolis Schools. She also recently sat on a committee for the Institutes of Medicine, which came up with new guidelines for school lunch nutrition. Those guidelines are being considered for inclusion in the reauthorization of the nationOs school nutrition law, which is up for renewal this year.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

"Schools have made incredible strides with what they're doing, and for every 10 good stories unfortunately there's one that folks tend to remember -- and that's something bad," Ronnei said.

There have been studies of school lunches and obesity. One University of Chicago researcher concluded that children who eat school lunches are more likely to be obese than those who brown bag it. Yet, a CDC report last year suggested the obesity epidemic might be slowing among low-income children.

The obesity fight is especially important for low-income students. A Minnesota Public Radio news analysis earlier this month found that one in three students in Minnesota is now enrolled in free and reduced lunch programs. That means more children eat two to three meals a day in schools -- and that's the only food some children eat.

Further change might come later this year when Congress debates renewing a federal law regulating school lunches.

School lunches are highly regulated and subsidized by the federal government. This year's reauthorization includes a $4.5 billion funding boost, which includes higher reimbursement rates for schools.

But the push won't just be for more money; it will also be for more nutritional requirements on school food.

Food directors in Minnesota say they'll work to keep improving lunches even if some new law doesn't force them to. And as for menu changes, more metro students can soon expect what has become a norm in Winona: St. Paul plans to add bison burgers to its menu later this fall.

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Minnesota Idea Open

Minnesota Public Radio News reported this story as part of a project being directed by the Minnesota Community Foundation. Along with other partners, the foundation has launched a contest -- the Minnesota Idea Open -- that asks Minnesotans to offer ideas to help combat obesity in their communities. Implementation of the winning idea is funded with a cash award. April 9 is the last day to submit ideas. For more information visit: www.mnideaopen.org