Hopkins students get a taste of Minnesota geography each time they bite into lunch.
From beef hot dogs made in Cannon Falls to Bemidji-grown brown rice, Hopkins and more Minnesota schools are going closer to home this fall for locally made foods. They join a growing national movement to eat healthier and fight childhood obesity before new federal child nutrition guidelines are released early next year.
But it's also taking a bigger bite out of families' budgets.
Across the state, families are being asked to fork over more money, mostly 5 or 10 cents for meals in the $2 range, so schools can ramp up fresh local food, keep up with rising costs and start making changes before the new guidelines go into effect.
The price increase, which for some school districts is 4 percent, comes as more than 66,000 students -- one in 12 statewide -- qualify for reduced-price meals.
Many schools blame the price hike on the new guidelines that will come from the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which Congress passed last year. It raised national nutrition standards for the first time in 15 years, but also required upping prices to meet a federal reimbursement rate.
"It can be a hardship," said Allison Bradford, child nutrition director in Anoka-Hennepin Schools, where prices nudged up 10 cents. "It's a concern across the nation that participation will decrease [if prices rise]."
In St. Paul, the new guidelines forced the school district to bump up prices by 10 cents, making elementary lunch $1.85 and secondary meals $2.10.
Despite the increase, the number of students buying school lunch hasn't dropped.
With added fresh fruits and vegetables and an unlimited salad bar at each school daily, "it's an incredible bargain," said Jean Ronnei, nutrition services director. "I don't think people can pack a lunch for that."
Moving toward new rules
The final new federal guidelines are expected to be released in January. It follows efforts nationwide, led most visibly by First Lady Michelle Obama, to curb childhood obesity by stomping out sugary sweets, high-sodium snacks and processed foods.
Schools aren't waiting for the new rules, making changes that they expect will be among the new regulations.
In Minneapolis, schools already meet 90 percent of the anticipated new rules, said Irfan Chaudhry, interim food services director. "You can't just do something overnight."
Other schools are reducing sodium, trading iceberg lettuce for dark leafy greens, decreasing portion sizes and swapping in more whole grain breads. While the federal aid to districts has increased, food service directors say it doesn't come close to making up for increased costs. Instead, they're scrounging for cost savings or raising meal prices.
In Sartell-St. Stephen Schools, kids pay 5 cents more per meal this fall -- a small price for healthier food, said Food Services Director Brenda Braulick.
The central Minnesota district bans salt shakers and serves items such as hummus and whole grain wraps.
"In Minnesota we are very fortunate," Braulick said. "Many of our districts ... are really far ahead of the national level in the quality of school nutrition."
Everything from schoolyard gardens to ramped-up salad bars are becoming commonplace in schools across the state.
"Everyone is stepping back to say, 'how can we make our food healthier?'" said Deb Lukkonen, the state school nutrition program supervisor. "It's a slow process, but we didn't get obese overnight."
Passing kids' taste tests
This year half of the state's students are getting fresh, locally grown food in Farm-to-School programs, aided this year by a new resource. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture and Minnesota Department of Health recently launched an online directory to connect schools to farms in the state, located at www.minnesotagrown.com.
In Hopkins, School Nutrition and Wellness Coordinator Laura Metzger used the site to quickly find farms in Brainerd and West Concord that provided thousands of chicken drumsticks for an event this month. The district gets thousands of pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables delivered from a Delano farm. About 70 percent of meals at elementary and junior high schools are also made by staff.
Hopkins students are taking to the local health food kick. At West Junior High School this week, the hot meal for students was a whole grain pasta topped with meatballs mixed with applesauce.
Seventh-grader Nanue Welwean chose the pasta over sandwiches and another entree, adding a side of sauteed garlic zucchini from chef Bill Meyer's home garden and splurging on a whole grain chocolate chip cookie.
"You can tell it's not from a week ago," she said. "Just the look of it, it's fresh and it tastes better."
From Wayzata to Willmar, 123 Minnesota school districts -- more than 800 schools -- had Farm-to-School programs last year. The rapid rise, from 10 districts in 2006, shows JoAnne Berkenkamp that schools are overcoming hurdles such as financing and finding farmers.
"Not everyone will be able to do this," said Berkenkamp, local foods program director at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. "But we're at a place now where we're beyond the early adapters; it's now getting mainstream. And the momentum is building."
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141