The West St. Paul School District has introduced salad bars as part of its efforts to upgrade nutrition options for students.
Grace Paschka, 6, loaded her tray with salad while Tevyon Block, 6, waited his turn. At far left, Julina Evon Cepeda, 7, checked out some additional options in the cafeteria of Garlough Environmental Magnet School in West St. Paul. From all reports, the kids are into the new salad bar in a big way.
The lunch crowd arrives in noisy waves each day, talking about the day's events while grabbing some whole wheat pasta and maybe a scoop of brown rice before heading to the well-stocked salad bar.
Except for their diminutive size (and the chocolate milk that often accompanies their meals), one would never know from their menu that the food connoisseurs in question are elementary school students in the West St. Paul school district and not diners at the Good Earth.
Like many across the country, the school district is looking for ways to improve child nutrition. Unlike most districts, West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan has decided installing salad bars in the elementary schools is one way to go.
"The kids love it," said Kim Zellmer, a first-grade teacher at Garlough Environmental Magnet School, which also grows its own organic vegetables. "They make good choices."
They also often go back for seconds. The kids get unlimited access to the daily salad bar, which includes such things as lettuce, garbanzo beans, carrots, jicama, peppers and fresh fruit.
"The more we can do to reinforce healthy habits, the more successful our students will be," said Susan Brott, spokeswoman for the district. "It is hard to ignore the many reports about childhood obesity in our country, and we must recognize that schools play a part in ensuring that we provide safe and healthy learning environments for the kids."
West St. Paul began putting in the salad bars in the late fall as part of a federal grant, one of only five given out across the country as part of the "Let's Move Salad Bars to Schools" initiative.
While West St. Paul, with 4,500 students, will focus on elementary schools, the Red Lake School District in northern Minnesota will study how well the salad bars work in middle and high schools.
"Our findings will be used throughout the state of Minnesota and across the country," Michelle Trumpy, the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan School District's registered dietician, said at a recent school board meeting. "It's really exciting for us."
As part of its overall nutrition guidelines, the school district also has replaced white rice with brown rice, banned white flour tortillas in favor of whole wheat tortillas, and done away with white bread, said Jeff Wolfer, the district's child nutrition manager.
"We're trying to create more healthy options for our kids," Wolfer said. "We are also trying to introduce things that are new or different."
Food service workers also use whole wheat pasta, and they have eliminated fried foods at the elementary and middle schools while drastically reducing such offerings as French fries and cheeseburgers at Sibley High School.
Along with the salad bars, West St. Paul elementary students are also getting weekly exposure to new fruits and vegetables. In recent weeks, students have tried kiwi, jicama, yams, black beans, squash, green and red peppers, and similar foods.
The more popular items are then placed into the salad bar rotation.
"I have not heard anything negative," said Susan Powell, the principal at Garlough. "Parents love that there is a salad bar."
Anita Lopez-Dickey, who has two children in the district, said she was pleasantly surprised recently to learn that her daughter, Mikaela, a third-grader at Somerset Elementary School, likes peppers.
"I love peppers. I grow peppers," Lopez-Dickey said. "But I couldn't get her to eat them." That is, until Mikaela and her friends tried them as part of their taste-testing at school.
"I like that our gym teacher lets us have some samples," said Mikaela, 8. "That's how I learned to like peppers and kiwi and radishes."
Mikaela said she and a lot of the other kids at school also like the salad bar. "The whole class does," she said.
Nutrition experts say that peer acceptance and allowing kids to choose which fruits and vegetables they want to eat will go a long way toward expanding healthy food choices among students.
"The kids do a lot of talking about it," said Zellmer, the teacher. "There are a lot of friend-based choices. A lot of times what they choose to eat is based on what their friends do. It's a huge factor."
Heron Marquez • 952-746-3281