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Area farmers are linked to school lunch program

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Eating healthy is the goal.

More than a year ago, Dakota County schools began a "Smart Choices" initiative (through Dakota County Public Health), designed to support the health of students and staff by creating an environment that encourages healthy food choices. Hastings Independent School District 200 is one of the seven school districts in the county participating in the program.

As part of this effort, the first Farm to School week is being observed next week, Sept. 20 to 24. This observance is designed to increase awareness about the benefits of the rapidly growing Farm to School initiatives around the state. The Minnesota School Nutrition Association (MSNA) and the Institute Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) sponsor the week. Their partnership has helped to promote the Minnesota Farm to School movement.

In fact, the Hastings school district is one of the districts being highlighted during the week, which is being held throughout the state.

The products the Hastings school district will serve during the Farm to School week and throughout the fall will include tomatoes, sweet corn, apples and watermelon. Mary Paula Deane, director of Food and Nutrition Services for the Hastings school district, has commitments for farm fresh apples from McDougall's Apple Junction, for tomatoes from V and P Greenhouse and Gardens, and for sweet corn from the Bill Bauer farm.

Next year, the district plans to add locally-grown beans, snap peas, and zucchini to the menu.

The district has gone beyond just serving locally grown produce. To help inform students of the Farm to School link, posters of local agricultural producers will be displayed the day their produce is served in the school cafeteria.

"Farm to school is a way in which we can successfully expose students not only to healthy, locally-grown produce, also to farmers and growers who are responsible for raising the produce," said Deane. "It attaches a human face to the food that is eaten."

To receive federal reimbursement, school meals must meet regulations that were established in 1995 for nutrition standards and meal requirements. To obtain assistance in updating regulations, the United States Department of Agriculture asked the Institute of Medicine to provide recommendations to revise the standards and requirements.

At the end of the study, the Institute of Medicine had adopted standards for menu planning that increased the amount and variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grain; set a minimum and maximum level of calories that are age appropriate; and increased the focus on reducing the amounts of saturated fat and sodium provided.

The Hastings school district did go ahead with many of the recommendations before they were a requirement. Deanne said. That meant cutting some calories out of the lunch menus, to almost entirely whole grain in bread items, and an increased emphasis on fruits and vegetables.

With the ala carte items at the high school and middle school, snack foods have no more than 200 calories per package, no more than 35 percent of the totals calories are from fats, less than 10 percent are from saturated fat, no more than 35 percent of total calories are from added sugars, and no more than 200 milligrams of sodium per package. Water is now without flavoring, additives or carbonation.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota through its Prevention Minnesota Initiative and the Minnesota Department of Health's Statewide Health Improvement Program funds the Smart Choices program.