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A Six-cent Down Payment on Health

February 01, 2011 By Valerie Ong, Education Fellow

Minnesota schools have recently been described as being “on the front line of the obesity battle.” In some cases, school meals might be the only nutritious option available to Minnesota’s school age children, making healthy school meal menus another item in a growing list of school priorities.

In response, many Minnesota cafeteria leaders are in the process of making serious nutritional improvements, putting this state a head of the national curve, says Mary Anderson, Wayzata schools’ Culinary Express supervisor.

That doesn’t mean Minnesota can’t benefit from national initiatives. Last December, President Obama signed the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act, mandating healthy school meal funding.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) also proposed a rule to raise nutritional standards for lunch and breakfast programs for the first time in 15 years. Proposed changes include adding more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free, and low-fat milk and limiting the levels of sodium, calories, saturated fat, and trans-fats in school meals.

Child obesity rates have been rising in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported an “estimated 17 percent of children and adolescence aged 2-19 years are obese,” based on a 2007-2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. While Minnesota ranks low in child obesity rates relative to the nation, the state is seeing an overall obesity rise at all age levels.

This means, Minnesota must continue working to promote healthy habits. Wayzata schools haven’t served whole milk for more than a decade. Some schools have started serving whole wheat crusted pizza and many districts are serving whole grain breads. Karen Neil, food manager at Wayzata says students don’t seem to notice the difference.

School cafeterias in Minnetonka have cut back on canned fruits and vegetables, replacing them with fresh selections. Willmar and Onamia schools have been decreasing starchy vegetable servings like corn and potatoes which are typically the most popular among students, according to food services staff observations.

However, a key concern is funding to maintain healthy school food options. While the president allocated six additional cents per meal, schools must meet new nutrition standards in order to get the money. That’s discouraging to Annette Derouin, Willmar’s food and nutrition services director. As she sees it, getting the additional money first is the best way to achieve the nutrition standards.

Depending on the scale of a schools food operation, these six cents add up and can really help. In other cases they might barely put a dent in paying for healthy options.

JoAnne Berkenkamp, Program Director of the Local Foods Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, puts the six cents in context by explaining it pays for about half a serving of fruits or vegetables.

Kathy Faust, Onamia’s food services manager, feeds fewer than 600 students and says the extra six cents will only pay for a limited amount of fresh fruits and vegetables. Faust explains that serving fresh produce isn’t cost efficient because it’s not available locally during Minnesota’s long winter season.

Minnesota welcomes the new regulations, provided that school cafeterias receive adequate assistance and resources promised by the law in order to comply with USDA guidelines.

To begin, Derouin highlights the importance of the USDA aligning its purchasing with the nutrition guidelines. Derouin believes that if the USDA wants to limit sodium levels, it must provide support and guidance to food manufacturers to make products that meet the sodium levels, are adequate in nutritional quality, and acceptable in terms of student tastes.

Next, the federal government must provide adequate training, labor, administrative, and financial resources along with practical and realistic methods for implementing school nutrition legislation.

Finally, we remain mindful that collective action is key to encourage healthy eating habits. Families play a critical role establishing healthy eating routines before children even attend school. Schools play a significant role in affirming healthy eating habits. The federal government, local government, schools, families, and communities have to work together to produce real change. Our children and state’s health future are worth our commitment and teamwork.

The USDA is seeking input on the proposed rule from the public through April 13, 2011. Those interested in reviewing the proposal and offering comments are encouraged to do so at, a web-based portal to make it easy for citizens to participate in the Federal rulemaking process. All comments received will be considered carefully in finalizing the rule before it is implemented.

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