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Teri Finneman / Forum Communications Co. A salad bar awaits Granville, N.D., students every day, with as many items as possible from the school garden. School cook Wanda Bachmeier said it's amazing to watch students ask for a salad plate and see them enjoy healthy eating.

School focuses on fresh produce

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GRANVILLE, N.D. -- Six-year-old Ethan Kuhnhenn looked at the food his school lunch ladies handed him with skepticism.

Holding it as far away as he could, he debated whether to try the foreign orange object.

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"Just try it," one of the ladies instructed.

In a quick swoop, Ethan shoved the cantaloupe in his mouth and swallowed.

"It's like watermelon!" he exclaimed before running off.

The lunch ladies laughed. Another victory was theirs.

At Granville Public Schools, getting kids to eat fresh fruits and vegetables every day with school lunch is a top priority.

About five years ago, agriculture teacher Jeff Hagel and his students started a garden behind the high school in this town of fewer than 300 people.

One goal was to get students more involved in Future Farmers of America activities. Others were to incorporate the food into the school lunch program, to help students learn what gardening was about and to have produce for the State Fair.

School officials say the transformation in the lunchroom has been amazing.

"Prior to us having this (garden), kids would just eat chicken nuggets, chicken nuggets, chicken nuggets," Principal Tonya Hunskor said. "(Now) the kids will ask, 'Does that come from our garden? Is that what we grew?' That, I think, makes the kids more curious also to try the foods."

The success of farm to school is taking off nationwide, with more than 2,000 programs in all 50 states, said Debra Eschmeyer, a spokeswoman for the National Farm to School Network. The network is jointly managed by staff from the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute and the Community Food Security Coalition, along with eight regional agencies.

In North Dakota, about 15 school districts are known to have programs, said Deb Egeland, school nutrition programs manager with the state Department of Public Instruction.

Gov. John Hoeven has declared this week North Dakota Farm-to-School Week, saying the program positively impacts healthy eating among children and supports the state's agricultural economy.

So why is farm to school suddenly the thing to do? Well, it boils down to a combination of factors.

Growing popularity

In the late 1990s, there were a handful of farm-to-school programs in the country, according to the National Farm to School Network's website. There were about 400 in 2004, 1,000 in 2007 and now more than 2,000.

Finding solutions to rising childhood obesity rates is one reason for the growing popularity. Federal studies have found most young people don't eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables each day.

In the past three decades, childhood obesity rates in America have tripled, and nearly one in three children in America is overweight or obese, according to letsmove.gov.

Combating childhood obesity and getting kids interested in gardening and fresh food has been a top priority for first lady Michelle Obama, thus increasing its visibility in the country.

North Dakota Ag Commissioner Doug Goehring said farm-to-school programs provide children with healthy food choices and also create economic opportunities for local farmers. Students can also better understand where food comes from.

"You start to gain a greater appreciation for the blood, sweat and tears that it takes to grow food," he said.

Twenty to 30 years ago, "everybody had a garden," Goehring said. That seems to have declined until the latest recession when people started thinking about ways to save money or had extra time, he said.

Just like mom's kitchen

For Granville students, there's no wondering where part of their school food comes from.

As her students waited to be served earlier this month, kindergarten teacher Nancy Krumwiede informed them some of their lunch came from the "the boys and the girls in the high school" who work on the school garden.

Even the kindergartners are getting on board with healthy eating. Two of them explained why they eat broccoli at lunch time.

"It looks like a tree," Tyler Blowers said.

"Dinosaurs eat trees," Collin Espeseth helpfully added.

Krumwiede said kids can be scared to try something new, so it's important to try to make it seem interesting and to tell them "it's healthy and it's good for us."

The school's garden produces a variety of produce. Besides the standard corn, potatoes, green beans, cucumbers and peas, the school has had the students try items like squash, eggplant, peppers and turnips. The school has also planted fruit trees.

Although the harvest supply dwindles throughout the school year, potatoes and beans have lasted until spring.

School cooks Karla Thompson and Wanda Bachmeier said using fresh produce makes their job more time consuming, with the need to peel and chop for 150 students and staff.

Staff and students also need to help with the garden during the summer. But improved lunches and the education for students make it worthwhile, school officials say.

The program has also become a community effort, with residents bringing in items from their gardens for the school lunch program. Granville senior Taylor Bachmeier, 17, has a garden at home and sells produce to his school.

"It's great to see kids eating fresh vegetables," he said. "It's great to see that we're not depending on canned items. We can actually produce some of the items ourselves."

How to get started

Granville has received grants to support its program. Schools interested in starting a program have a number of resources and ways to go about it.

In Valley City, school food service director Sue Milender said the community garden worked with Washington Elementary students to plant, weed and harvest soybeans this year.

The School District has also purchased items from farmers' market vendors, which has been "a huge hit with the kids," she said.

The North Dakota Department of Agriculture has offered farm-to-school workshops.

USDA's Food and Nutrition Service Farm to School website also assists schools in starting or expanding farm-to-school activities.

USDA studied farm-to-school programs across the country this year and is working on a best-practices report that will be released later this year to help schools.

Janey Thornton, USDA deputy under secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, said the key is to "plan, plan, plan" and understand the challenges and solutions before getting started.

Farm to school does mean extra work, Hagel of Granville said.

"But it's a program that's worthwhile," he said. "Otherwise, I wouldn't have kept going on it."

Teri Finneman is a

multimedia reporter for

Forum Communications Co.

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