Dakota County Public Health helps to lead Smart Choices — a partnership between Dakota County and school districts. The program focuses on creating a healthier school environment through more opportunities for healthy eating and physical activity.
Improvements to school policies, practices and the environment that promote healthy food choices are supported through start-up funds for new projects. Every project must show how it will be sustainable. Dakota County staff and consultants offer expertise on school food and nutrition best practices and skill-building opportunities for school staff. Dakota County is currently supporting 17 schools from five districts on a variety of healthy eating projects.
Research has shown that when schools focus on wellness and health — like healthy eating — it is better for students in many ways. Students who attend schools like this miss fewer days, have higher academic achievement and self-esteem, and are more likely to graduate, according to Action for Healthy Kids.
Here is a taste of some of the projects recently launched in local districts:
Betty says: “Eat your fruit and veggies!”
The Randolph School District may be small, but staff, students and parents are making big changes to improve nutrition. Students in grades 4–12 now have access to a salad bar that includes nine new fruit and vegetable options. Since the salad bar was introduced in 2013, the district has increased the amount of fruits and veggies ordered by more than 1,100 pounds per month.
Juniors and seniors helped promote the salad bar through attention-getting posters and table tents. The posters feature food service employees from the school, like Betty. The students also helped organize a contest between classes that boosted daily use of the salad bar to nearly 100 students (56 percent of eligible students).
Farm to School brings local produce to students
At least three days each week students in the West St. Paul-Mendota-Heights-Eagan Area Schools (ISD 197) enjoy fresh, seasonal produce in their school lunch.
The original goal of the Farm to School program was to partner with at least five local farmers and increase the amount of local foods served at lunch by 25 percent — which they easily beat. The district worked with a dietitian consultant (funded by SHIP), who supported the development of Farm to School structure, and Twin Cities Local, who connected the district to produce from nine local farms. Over the same three-month time, the district increased spending on local produce from $451 in 2013 (1 percent of total produce spending) to $13,544 in 2014 (26 percent of total produce spending).
Students know where the food is from because signs display the name and location of the farm. Many teachers are excited about the program and remind students to try the local foods. The structure and relationships with farms set up through the program ensure a lasting supply of local foods hitting the trays of ISD 197 students for years to come.
Students market “healthy hydration”
Students at Hastings High School promoted water as a healthy beverage option. The project overlapped with Hastings’ wellness committee effort to install two hydration stations at the high school. These stations provide fresh, filtered water that can be used like a drinking fountain or easily fill a water bottle. Dakota County SHIP supported these efforts by providing staff time and sharing best practices for promoting healthy beverage consumption and matching funds to purchase the first hydration station.
The overall goal of the project was to make water an attractive and easy alternative to sugar-sweetened beverages (like pop and energy drinks) and reduce the amount of sugar-sweetened beverages students drink. Students developed marketing and communication materials to promote the hydration station. This included a survey on current beverage habits and preferences for the station location as well as creative materials like a video, posters, print ads, daily announcements and a newspaper article. The messaging focused on the environmental impacts of disposable plastic bottles and the health and academic benefits of staying hydrated with healthy options.
Several students were so engaged in the project that they expressed interest in coming back to the high school from college to assist with a post-survey in the spring of 2017. They want to measure any changes in beverage consumption habits among the students.
Growing greens at Hastings Middle School
In 2015, Hastings Middle School received funding from Dakota County SHIP to build a school-based agriculture project. Studies show that children who learn about nutrition through garden-based education eat more fresh fruits and vegetables.
In the spring of 2015, Hastings Middle School purchased materials to build five raised garden beds. School staff and AmeriCorps volunteers successfully grew kale, peppers, tomatoes, lettuce and cucumbers and students helped harvest the vegetables. The fresh foods were used in school lunches that year.
In the fall 2015, the garden expanded to add a sixth garden bed and a student Garden Club was formed. In the spring, students started seeds in the greenhouse, which they later transplanted in the beds. The garden now has a mix of vegetables, flowers and fruit. Throughout the summer, the Me to We Club will help take care of the garden, including weeding and watering. Future plans include involving the Art Club to decorate recycled bottles for an herb station to be used in the school kitchen.