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HOPKINS, Minn. -- The cooler door swings open and out come boxes of vegetables and fruit -- scratch ingredients for that day's breakfast and lunch program.

"For far too long, meals and food (has) been relegated to the bottom of the ladder of its importance," said Barb Mechura, Director of Student Nutrition.

Mechura says the menu was much different when she started in the Hopkins district six years ago. "We had a lot of breaded chicken products on our menu, and we had mini corndog nuggets," said Mechura, "There would be a lot of people who would say, 'But they are whole grain nuggets.'"

Mechura and her staff decided it was time to overhaul the district menus. The first order of business was getting rid of breaded chicken products.

"The are processed at very high heat," said Mechura. "High heat destroys nutrients and other attributes of these wonderful foods."

"We had a lot of parents calling in and we had a lot of our lunchroom staff, a lot of teachers and even administrators who didn't understand why we were doing it," added Mechura.

Eventually, as cooks added healthier options, anecdotal evidence of the benefits started coming in.

"Behavior in cafeterias was better," said Mechura. "Teachers started making changes in their classrooms and not giving out food as a reward."

A big change came this summer when River Bend Farm offered offered to donate tomatoes and pickles for a pilot project to create homemade foods for students.

Staff made a roasted garlic tomato sauce that will be used in schools throughout the year.

"In the fall it's going to be marinara suce, and in the winter it's going to be ravioli," explained Mechura.

Cook Supervisor Tonya Christiansen gave the recipe a test run last spring, and even brought in students from the Family and Consumer Sciences classes to learn about the process and share that with other students.

"We didn't want the kids to come into the lunch room going, 'What's that?'" said Christiansen.

In the midst of roasting trays of tomatoes this summer, Christiansen believes her efforts in the kitchen will pay off in the classroom.

"It feels really great to know that we're helping them with their learning every day," she said.

The ability to prepare and cook large quantities of fresh food depends on the infrastructure of the kitchen. As schools moved to more processed foods in the '70's they lost kitchen space as well as equipment.

Hopkins Public Schools was awarded funding from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and Blue Cross and Blue Shield Minnesota.

Mechura says new grant applications are being accepted with a deadline of October 18, 2013. For more information contact Emily Murphy at emily.murphy@state.mn.us.

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