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Healthier School Meals in Hopkins, Minnesota


The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, signed into law in December 2010, charged the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) with updating school food nutrition standards to reflect the latest nutrition science. Updates to the nutrition standards for school meals went into effect at the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year, and schools across the country have been making changes to provide students with healthier choices. The law also provides schools with increased funding, training, and technical assistance to meet the new meals standards; calls for stronger local wellness policies, more transparency, and improved compliance measures; and strengthens USDA’s commitment to other nutrition and wellness programs. USDA is now working to update the standards for snacks and beverages sold outside of meals—in school stores, à la carte lines, and vending machines—which the agency hasn’t revised in more than 30 years.


The school meals in Hopkins, Minn., are not necessarily what you would expect. Food Service Director Barb Mechura has found ways to remove older, unhealthy staples and spice things up. In fact, she’s been so successful at it that about 90 percent of the cooking in the district is currently from scratch. Since joining the Healthy Schools Program of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation a few years ago, the district has used resources and support from the Alliance to focus on creating healthier schools throughout the district.

But Mechura isn’t relying just on recipe development and taste tests to update her menus. Market research, education and promotion also are helping the district serve healthier school meals. For instance, a campaign using school newsletters and other informational materials helped Mechura explain why the changes are important for student health, and gain broad support for them.

Hopkins also participates in a farm-to-school program, which helps increase the availability of tasty produce and extend the educational mission by teaching students about the origins of their foods. Mechura has been pleased to see kids choosing and enjoying more fruits and vegetables this year. Speaking recently to a high school journalism class, Mechura was happy to answer questions about the availability of fresh, local produce, and did not have to answer a single question about the changing menus.

Food service staff members have made efforts to modify existing food items to meet the new guidelines, but sometimes Mechura has found such changes can bump up against students’ expectations. She’s found that, in these cases, it’s better to start fresh with something new that can satisfy both students’ taste preferences and the nutrition guidelines. For instance, rather than tweaking the old breaded chicken entrée, she’s replaced it with shish kabobs over rice. It’s earning rave reviews.

Finally, Mechura works with other school staff to help them understand the importance of healthier meals, and provides them with talking points to help them discuss the changes with staff, parents, and students. She continues to collaborate with student groups in designing recipes and choosing the vegetables to be served. To other food service directors across the country, she recommends being patient and persistent, and emphasizing how access to nutritious foods and increased physical activity is better in the long run and will help kids lead healthier lives.