Fresh fruits and veggies are climbing up the list of favorite lunch foods for Robbinsdale school students.

Over the past year, Robbinsdale school staff have learned how to sell kids of all ages on fresh fruits and vegetables by -- to their own surprise -- revamping the classic salad.

For a few years now, schools have been trading fried foods for more fresh fruits and vegetables, but the northwest suburban school district decided to take the trend a step further last year by serving up salads as an everyday entree option at every school.

Students from first-graders to high school age have been so taken by the restaurant-inspired salads that they ate nearly 16,000 salads in the first seven months of the school year -- double the rate of salads sold the year before.

"It was a nice surprise," said Adele Lillie, Robbinsdale schools' child nutrition director. "They're trying different things and getting good nutrition."

The salad surge was spurred by a $68,000 grant from the Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP), a two-year initiative to fight tobacco use, physical inactivity and poor nutrition in communities and schools across the state. The 12,000-student district used the money to fund new wellness initiatives, including revamping salads to increase the amount of vegetables and fruits students get in their school meals.

Copying restaurants

The district held taste-testing sessions with students and then launched the new salads last fall. To make the greens appeal to teens and younger kids alike, the school district took its cue from restaurants, nixing dull iceberg lettuce in favor of dark-green romaine.

This year the district's kitchens are offering seven salads, including strawberry chicken, Mandarin orange chicken and Santa Fe salads, all served with controlled portions of dressing such as reduced-fat ranch or vinaigrette.

It's an appealing way, Lillie said, to get students to eat more vegetables, fruits and beans -- all expected requirements of new federal nutrition guidelines set to be released early next year.

With those guidelines on the way, schools across the state are ramping up their use of fresh produce from local farms. Farm-to-school programs in the state have spread from 10 school districts in 2006 to 123 school districts -- or more than 800 schools -- last year. To decrease sodium and fat content, schools like Robbinsdale are making more meals from scratch and nixing processed foods.

That's also what Anoka-Hennepin Schools have done, turning to scratch cooking for meals such as chili and offering unlimited fruits and vegetables to students, Child Nutrition Director Allison Bradford said.

In nearby Hopkins Schools, cafeteria staff sported "I dig my farmer" T-shirts at lunch last week as they served homemade pasta mixed with fresh tomatoes and basil from a Delano farm. All schools in the Hopkins district aim to have locally grown food twice a week.

"Kids are just getting more and more exposure to locally grown food," said Laura Metzger, Hopkins' school nutrition and wellness coordinator. "It's pretty exciting."

The district's cooks also have cut salt content by making their own pasta sauce, and they have trimmed fat by making 70 percent of their meals from scratch. They also have banned fried food; fryers don't even exist in Hopkins' cafeterias anymore.

Competing with quesadillas

Students won't find fried food in Robbinsdale either, which has made similar changes, snatching up everything from locally produced beef hot dogs to locally grown corn on the cob. While the SHIP grant ends in December, the salads will stay, Lillie said, as long as they remain popular.

Last year, staff were astonished at the salads' success when schools like Northport Elementary sold more than 500 salads a month.

Last week, the school staff saw salads fare well against hot dogs, but they did run into one strong culinary competitor: the ever-popular cheese quesadillas. Only a few students snatched up salads the day that the quesadillas were served.

Lillie said it shows the district's dietary planners are still learning how to best make the greens appeal to students, tweaking and improving recipes each year.

"We just have to continue to offer new things," she said, and how they offer it matters.

"The presentation is huge," she said. "We eat with our eyes."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141