Carts bearing healthful snacks will wind through the halls of Farmington Elementary this fall.

Deep fryers will disappear at junior highs in the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District. Soft-serve ice cream machines will also be gone from all of the district's secondary schools.

And on Dakota County's southern edge, the Randolph School District is re-purposing a greenhouse -- previously used by science classes -- so that the Future Farmers of America club can grow vegetables bound for the cafeteria.

It's all part of Dakota County's "Smart Choices" program, a five-year effort funded by a $700,000 grant from Blue Cross Blue Shield that aims to improve the diets, especially the fruit and vegetable intake, of Minnesotans. And it's one more way for the county's public health department to continue its fight against obesity.

"The [obesity] rates are going up and we need to look at the environment where kids spend a large share of their time and make sure it's healthy," Teresa Rondeau-Ambroz, the county's program coordinator, said. "There are a lot of opportunities for kids to get food in school."

Thirteen percent of the children enrolled in the county's Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program in 2007 were overweight or obese. And the number of obesity-related illnesses, and treatment costs, are trending upward.

A preliminary survey of the food landscape at the 43 schools participating in the "Smart Choices" program found that only one in five students reported eating the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables each day.

At school, the breakfast and lunch options often are balanced, but students have access to plenty of other junk food in a la carte offerings, vending machines, concession stands and even classroom parties.

The survey found that even when healthful options are available through those avenues, students don't pick them. Only 5 percent of food purchased in middle school a la carte lines was healthful, even though 54 percent of the offerings were considered healthful. High school students made better choices -- 20 percent of their purchases were considered healthful -- but still don't get enough fruits and vegetables.

"If you had a chocolate chip cookie in front of you and an apple, obviously the chocolate chip cookie would be more appealing," Rondeau-Ambroz said. "How much of that food can we have available and expect the kids to make healthy choices?"

Food services director Roxanne Williams said that's part of the rationale behind the exit of deep fryers and ice cream from some of the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage schools. The emphasis this year will be on locally grown foods and farm-to-school education and eating.

Plans, still in the works, will likely include taste tests of different vegetables for younger students during lunchtime and maybe even some classroom activities. And with some unhealthful options removed, it'll be easier for students with growling stomachs to make better choices.

"If you're hungry for a meal, everything looks great," Williams said.

Dr. Marc Manley, vice president and medical director for population health at Blue Cross Blue Shield, praised the efforts being made by the schools in Dakota County's program.

"We'll be very happy if they can make some progress just in terms of what the food environment is like," Manley said. "Our ultimate goal is to have a greater percentage of people in this state eating healthier diets."

Katie Humphrey • 952-882-9056