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Published May 20, 2010, 12:00 AM

Food for thought: Grants plant seeds for good nutrition

"I think I’m getting too old for this,” third-grader Lauren Shekore announced as she shoveled soil onto the roots of an apple sapling in Moorhead’s Ellen Hopkins Elementary yard.
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"I think I’m getting too old for this,” third-grader Lauren Shekore announced as she shoveled soil onto the roots of an apple sapling in Moorhead’s Ellen Hopkins Elementary yard.

Classmate Bethany Nelson said her tae kwon do training helped with the physical rigors of gardening. Both agreed the exertion was worth it: Supermarket apples will have nothing on the school crop.

“If you get it from the tree, it’s more natural and fresher,” says Bethany. Added Lauren, “They taste more apple-y and juicy.”

With the help of state grants, Minnesota school districts in this area are looking to add more fresh, locally grown produce to cafeteria offerings, where processed foods can still hold sway. And the best way to ensure the produce is fresh and locally grown is to grow it right in school yards.

Besides, says Gary Kircher, an interventionist at Ogema Elementary, “I think it’s so important for young people to know where their food comes from and that everything they eat doesn’t have to be popped in the microwave.”

Moorhead students are planting 100 apple trees this week in each school yard, courtesy of a $15,000 state grant. Later this summer, Ellen Hopkins students will also plant a vegetable garden. Eventually, the yield will help schools with a goal of serving at least a cup of fruits and veggies a day, says Donna Tvedt, a food service employee.

Also this week, the fourth, fifth and sixth grades at the Norman County West district planted raised bed gardens in their school yard. Each grade voted on the veggies it would cultivate, from melons to Swiss chard. Come fall, one plot will yield ingredients – tomatoes, peppers, garlic and cilantro – with which student chefs will whip up fresh salsa.

“The students have been very excited,” says health aide Andy Haug. “One of them told me, ‘We are going to have a garden at home now, too.’ ”

The district landed a grant through the State Health Improvement Program, or SHIP, a

$47 million package to fight obesity, inactivity and tobacco use, the three top causes of preventable chronic illness in the country.

Four schools on the White Earth Reservation, including the elementary in Ogema, will also plant gardens with SHIP money.

“When kids have a hand in growing and preparing food, they’ll taste it more and like it more,” said Kim Turner, a health educator on the reservation.

In March, local SHIP coordinators hosted a “Farm to Cafeteria” workshop in McIntosh, where school food service employees could network with local farmers and gardeners.

The benefits of school gardens are many. As self-described “little farmers” noted in their garden journals in Norman County West, the task taught them teamwork and the joys of getting their hands dirty. Kids also learn that a freshly picked carrot has more nutrients than its well-traveled counterparts, Ogema’s Kircher says.

“You are working with kids that are young and impressionable,” says Guy Griebe, the SHIP coordinator for Norman and Mahnomen counties. “You are educating them about nutrition. It’s something they’ll hopefully take with them through their lives.”

At Ellen Hopkins in Moorhead, third-graders looked on their planted trees with a sense of accomplishment.

“Now, we just need sun, air and water,” says Micah Johnson.

“And we need patience,” adds Lauren.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529