University of Minnesota Extension and seven partners are kicking off a new set of training workshops this month for school cooks and menu planners to bring more nutritious, kid-friendly foods into school cafeterias next fall.
The collaboration, known as the Great Trays Partnership, is funded by a $2.3 million grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and provides training and tools to help schools statewide improve their menus and help kids eat healthier meals.
The Great Trays Partnership works to train school staff to prepare foods using more Minnesota-grown foods from the farm – and to help overcome equipment and cost barriers that make it hard for many schools to cook with fresh foods.
"Many schools are not equipped to prepare large quantities of local foods and fresh fruits and vegetables," said Stephanie Heim, Extension Farm to School coordinator. "Nearly three-quarters of school food service leaders surveyed said they could provide more local foods if they had better equipment, such as wedgers, food processors and knives."
In addition to Extension, Great Trays partners include the Minnesota Departments of Agriculture, Education, Health and Human Services, as well as the Minnesota School Nutrition Association, the Minnesota School Food Buying Group, and the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.
Great Trays efforts are a critical strategy to fight rising childhood obesity rates, which have tripled over the past three decades. Poor nutrition and obesity put children at risk for lifelong struggles with health conditions such as hypertension, diabetes and heart disease.
"Obesity rates for children have tripled in the past 30 years, which makes it more important than ever that kids get better nutrition," said Jim Koppel, Minnesota deputy commissioner of health. "Great Trays is supporting schools with valuable tools to ensure that school meals are healthy and taste good."
The partnership also works to help schools join food-buying cooperatives to make buying nutritious foods more affordable. Great Trays is offering a $200 discount to school districts that participate in the Minnesota School Food Buying Group in 2011-2012.
Great Trays held initial workshops last winter and will hold another round this month. The workshops train school cooks and menu planners in food preparation techniques to do more cooking from scratch and use more farm-fresh, Minnesota-grown foods. Trainings are in Minnetonka, Fergus Falls, Crookston, Grand Rapids, Anoka, Owatonna, Worthington and Holdingford.
School nutrition staff representing more than a thousand schools have participated in Great Trays initiatives thus far. These efforts are more important than ever as schools prepare for tougher federal nutrition standards that require lower levels of sodium and saturated fat.
"The Great Trays team has been so supportive of our efforts to introduce a wider variety of locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables," said Carrie Frank, food and nutrition director for Dover-Eyota Public Schools.
Great Trays is making a similar impact in schools across the state.
"Our members are excited to make changes to their schools' menus, and students are excited to try the new foods," said Debra LaBounty, president of the Minnesota School Nutrition Association. "We know that school lunch programs play an important role in helping kids learn to eat healthy food."
To see examples of school lunch successes across the state and to get more information on Great Trays, visit www.health.state.mn.us/schools/greattrays.
For more information on health and nutrition resources from University of Minnesota Extension, visit www.extension.umn.edu/health.