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School administrators hope dramatic changes in school meals helps improve student success

Brent Gish, superintendent of the Red Lake School District, believes if the district is not part of the solution, it is part of the problem.

As the district undergoes a comprehensive school improvement plan, it is also revamping what it is serving for breakfasts and lunches.

Three years ago the district self-initiated a healthier approach to school meals. Today, the district has added more fruits and vegetables to its menus and has reduced the salt and fat content in most of its foods.

Meals served in breakfasts and lunches today look different from what was served 10 years ago, according to Red Lake School District's Business Manager Willie Larson.

"Historically, if you take a look at school nutrition, school lunches had some of the highest fat content," he said.

Costs played a role in this, he added, but students were also being allowed to have second, third and fourth helpings.

But with recent pushes from the United States Department of Agriculture to make school meals healthier and a concern of high obesity rates among children and adults, changes had to be made.

Students in Red Lake Schools are now served only one helping of the main entrée at breakfast and lunch, but are allowed to go back for as many helpings of fruits and vegetables as they want. Salt shakers are no longer on tables and Ranch dressing for dipping vegetables is fat-free. And pizza is not offered for lunches anymore, although a breakfast pizza is occasionally offered in the mornings.

But these major changes did not come without opposition.

"That first six months, I don't know how many phone calls we were taking," Larson said. "If it wasn't from parents, it was from teachers or board members saying, 'Our kids don't like this stuff.' What they were really saying is the kids were not used to the new stuff. They were used to pizza."

Larson learned one of the biggest challenges the food service coordinator and administrators had to overcome was getting students to try the food before not accepting it.

According to Larson, given enough time to adjust to the changes, most of the students have now accepted the healthier menu.

In preparing for the future, Larson said, he and the district's food coordinator are learning more about ways to increase the whole grain count in cereals and replacing pork sausage with turkey sausage.

"If we're going to have the kids make academic growth, we can't have them running out of energy when they need to think," Larson said. "We're always looking at ways to improve nutrition."

Most recently, the district reorganized its breakfasts at the middle school and high school.

"We had good participation in breakfast programs at the elementary schools, but we saw that participation falls at the middle school," Gish said. "We found socializing was more important to them than proper nutrition."

As part of the district's reform efforts, students now meet for their first period class and then are given time to go through a breakfast buffet line.

"It's breakfast in a bag," Gish said. "They can pick out what they want to eat and they can still be social."

Gish said since the new breakfast program started, breakfast participation rates have tripled at the middle school and high school.

The school district also removed all carbonated beverages, with the exception of Powerade, from its beverage dispensers.

"We want to make water a choice," Gish said.

According to Gish, one of the most successful nutrition programs the district has participated in has been the Farm-to-School program.

Farm-to-School is a national network that promotes purchasing fresh, local foods in an effort to reduce childhood obesity and inform children about where food is grown from.

Gish said the district worked with local food producers to provide students with fresh fruits and vegetables. Students were able to try a variety of produce, including purple broccoli, yellow, pink and orange watermelon, carrots, apples, wild rice and more.

"I consider it highly successful," he said. "Kids are starting to get used to healthy menus."

The Bemidji School District is also participating in the Farm to School Network program.

Today, school districts, Gish said, play a bigger role in students' lives then they did at the turn of the 19th century.

"We now take on great responsibility," he said. "As we improve our curriculum and be held to a higher level of accountability, we are going beyond academics and providing better nutrition."

In the future, the Red Lake School District may also partner with Indian Health Services to provide students with an in-house preventative dentistry program, but this is dependent upon funding.