The West St. Paul school district boasts it has the healthiest secondary schools in the state, and it has the gold and silver medals to prove it.

The three schools, two middle and one high school, were recently recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for their efforts at providing students more fruits and vegetables, including salad bars, and more physical education and nutrition education.

"Eating healthy ... seems to be an easier connection for our kids," said Chris Hiti, principal at Heritage E-STEM middle school, the only school in Minnesota to achieve gold medal status for the USDA's Healthier U.S. Schools Challenge.

Heritage -- which has an environment, science, technology, engineering and math focus -- was joined by Friendly Middle School and Henry Sibley High School, which were given silver medals by the USDA.

District officials believe the latter two schools also would have received gold medals under revised standards by the government introduced this summer.

"There was a lot of hard work behind it," said Jill Verchota, a dietician and health promotion specialist with Dakota County. She worked with the West St. Paul district on improving its school lunches and nutrition offerings.

One of the reasons the kids have adapted so well in West St. Paul is that the district seems to be years ahead of the curve regarding the new federal nutrition guidelines.

The new guidelines, which mandate lower sodium, fats, carbs and calories, have drawn some complaints, including a boycott of the new lunches in Jordan last month because students did not like their taste.

That doesn't seem to be the case in West St. Paul.

"The food tastes different, but in a good way," said Anne Ganzer, a seventh grader at Heritage. "I like it."

Verchota and Jeff Wolfer, the district's child nutrition director, said the district began three years ago to introduce some of the changes, knowing they were coming.

Wheat bread replaced white bread. Salad bars were introduced in all of the schools. And food service workers began revamping the presentation and offerings.

"When the new rules came out, people in the district barely noticed because we had already been doing it," said Verchota, who is working with other districts in Dakota County.

A lot of kids, especially in the younger grades, seem to like the new lunches, perhaps in part because it is something they have become accustomed to over the past few years.

"We've got a really strong wellness environment in the district," Wolfer said. "It's just kind of a culture."

Heritage and other district schools, for example, have regular "tasting" days where new foods, such as jicama and peppers, are given to students in sample sizes for them to try. The ones that get the best responses are gradually introduced to the school lunches.

The school also has a garden that is harvested for school lunches or snacks.

"I think it's good," Hector Leanos, a seventh-grader at Heritage, said of the school food. "It's really nutritious. The healthier you eat, the more energy you will have."

Fit mind and body

The physical and academic benefits that come with better nutrition are also something the district pushes, especially at Heritage.

Joe McCarthy, a Farmington educator recently named the state's physical education teacher of the year, said the nutrition changes needed to be made to address the health of the students, especially with data showing a third of the nation's kids are obese.

McCarthy, who does extensive and innovative physical education work at his Farmington elementary school, points out that if children are obese by age 11, they are more than likely going to be obese adults, with all of the health issues associated with that, such as diabetes, heart disease and other illnesses. He said the academic performance of the children also will suffer if the nutrition they receive is not healthy.

"If they don't make a healthy lifestyle choice by 11, their outlook is dim," McCarthy said.

As a result, West St. Paul pushes its schools to keep the kids as physically active as possible, especially at Heritage.

The school not only does the maximum amount of physical education each week, it also encourages students to walk to school, ride their bikes to school or be active during recess or other free time. It is school and district policy that students not be denied recess as a punishment.

Hiti, the principal, said the school also has a program whereby older students at Heritage volunteer to teach younger students how to ice skate.

Finally, almost as a bonus, the district swimming pool is at Heritage instead of Sibley, so swimming is part of the middle school curriculum.

"The kids are in the pool a lot," Hiti said.

Hiti also noted that the adults in the building try to set a good example by eating fruits and vegetables as often as possible when kids are around. "Our entire staff is aware that they want to teach the value of good nutrition."

Heron Marquez • 952-746-3281