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Solway to build school garden this spring

A school-based workgroup led by three Bemidji School District leaders are working together to rethink school food.

This spring, a school garden will be built at Solway Elementary School, with the intention of providing the students, families, staff and the community of Solway a practical approach to nutrition.

The garden is one of several efforts by the workgroup, led by Bemidji School District nurse Sue Nokleby, Community Education coordinator of Kids & Company Susan Shelquist and Bemidji Schools' food service coordinator Marleen Webb, to promote positive, healthy foods in schools.

Approximately $10,500 in grants for the construction and maintenance of the Solway school garden has been approved by the Bemidji School Board for submission.

So far, $3,000 has been received from Statewide Health Improvement Program Grant through the Minnesota Department of Health. The money will be used to plant what students will have started from seeds in the classroom.

SHIP was developed in response to the 2007 Minnesota Legislature's request to develop a statewide health plan to address the rising cost of health care in Minnesota. SHIP tackles the top three causes of preventable illness and death in the United States - tobacco use, physical inactivity and poor nutrition.

SHIP is a competitive grant process that started in July 2009 and gives funding through community health boards and tribal governments across Minnesota.

In order to receive the SHIP grant, Deb Dilley, University of Minnesota Extension nutrition educator, worked with Webb to prepare plans for a school garden.

"(Dilley) had worked with Solway for several years and had initially started talking about having a garden at the school," Webb said. "Solway was a good location. There was space available and had the right numbers of students."

Students will begin plants from seeds in their classrooms and learn the process for growing a variety of vegetables. With assistance from the staff, parents and community, students will plant the garden later in the spring. Volunteers will manage the caretaking of the Solway garden, being coordinated by a committee.

"I have received a lot support from the community," Webb said. "The PTO, too - they are excited about this project.

Produce from the garden will be used in the school meal programs at Solway Elementary, Webb said. Some of the produce will also be used in the Summer Food Service Program located at Bemidji Middle School.

"We're going to start out small and grow - literally," Webb said. "Hopefully we'll have success."

Webb said the size of the garden has not yet been determined.

"It's a unique approach to increasing health foods and physical activity," said Raeann Mayer, SHIP coordinator on the North Country Community Health Board. "It will be one of the unique things about Solway, while also promoting the farm-to-school aspect."

Mayer said there are about seven schools throughout state of Minnesota with active gardens. She hopes more schools will participate in the future.