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Guest Opinion: Providing healthy food choices for students

I read with profound interest the Washington Post editorial (Sept. 16, 2015) on what our children eat in our schools. As coordinator for farm to school for numerous districts in central Minnesota, I can attest that not only are our children making healthier choices in their selections for school lunch, our districts have gone above and beyond the measures under the Healthy Hungry-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) enacted in 2010. I can also attest that HHFKA has opened doors for our area's small family farms in providing healthy, locally grown fruits and vegetables to our district's children - where red peppers, purple carrots, yellow cantaloupe and orange squash now have a place at your children's lunch table - which has also contributed significantly to the economic vitality of our small family farms. In addition, in my five years of coordinating farm to school for our region's largest district (ISD 181), we have created a team of dedicated professionals in our food service system who take pride in our farm to school programs, knowing they are working harder to process "whole foods" but that their work is paying off in creating a sustainable difference in the healthier choices our children are making at the lunch line.

As we have evolved from one district and one farm, we are now working with seven districts in central Minnesota, impacting well over 12,000 students. These children are making better choices and even in the earliest elementary years, understand the impact on their own well-being that these choices bring. We are working to get more students out to area farms in order to create an integral connection on where their food comes from, connecting them physically, visually, mentally, and consciously to the source of their nutrition. We are partnering with University of Minnesota Community Nutrition Educators to strengthen education in our classrooms on healthy choices. We are partnering with educators to build curriculum into the classrooms in a tiered approach to nutrition, health, science, biology, consumption and waste reduction. We have partnered with funding agencies such as the United States Department of Agriculture, Minnesota Department of Agriculture and the Statewide Health Improvement Program to aid districts in mechanized equipment purchases, staff training and education to strengthen our Farm to School Programs. In a distributed leadership model, many community leaders are taking responsibility for systems change, and we are making significant progress on the health of our children in central Minnesota.

For the first time, every district in Crow Wing County is participating in Farm to School. Food service directors are at the table in making decisions to minimize manufactured food, are focusing on seasonal menu creation, are on each district's Wellness Committee, and are providing exemplary leadership in the wholesome foods that nourish our children. With the growth of Farm to School, numerous small family farms across the nation are flourishing, building our local economies. We are working with over 50 small family farms to aggregate and distribute wholesome locally grown foods in this rural region. In a recent USDA Report to Congress ( Farm to School across the nation has increased by 430 percent. It would be a shame to discard this work in favor of lower nutritional standards while filling the pockets of big food manufacturers. I urge you to contact your congressional representative and ask them to reauthorize the HHFKA. As the editorial from the Washington Post indicated, ask them to also raise the federal reimbursement rates and build sustainability into these successful systems. It is the right choice for children.

Arlene Jones is coordinator of Farm to School programs and owner of The Farm on St. Mathias.