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Laporte's lunch launch a success

By Bethany Wesley / Bemidji Pioneer

LAPORTE -- A table full of fourth-graders sat examining their lunch plates Thursday, discussing their favorite dish of the day.

Nathaniel Smith liked the salad best. Ashlyn Halverson enjoyed the strawberries. A jokester, Nolan Taylor, quipped that his favorite was the "guck," what is actually a rather tasty wild rice hot dish that he happily gobbled up.

Everyone agreed the plates full of fresh produce were appetizing,

"I like this food because I'm a vegetarian," said Faith Carpenter, who preferred sliced-up bell peppers.

Laporte Schools was honored Thursday as representatives from the University of Minnesota Extension and Minnesota Grown came to bestow to the student body a $1,000 award, one of three Eat Smart Food Contest winners in the state. Laporte was chosen for how much it spends per pupil on fresh fruits and vegetables.

Part of the award package was a special visitor, Carrie Tollefson, a Dawson., Minn., native who represented Team USA in the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece, as she competed in the 1,500-meter run. She now is a Minnesota Grown spokesperson.

Addressing a gymnasium full of students, Tollefson used her experiences as a platform of encouragement, telling students that coming from a small town herself -- Dawson has about 1,600 residents -- you have more opportunities to push yourself.

Tollefson qualified for the varsity cross-country team as a seventh-grader, her first year of running. "When you grow up in these small communities you guys, you have to really strive big sometimes," Tollefson said. "It can be easy to be complacent, it can be easy to just say it's nice to be from a small community because we're taken care of. But we're also supposed to push ourselves and that's what I learned."

Tollefson was the first seventh-grader to ever qualify for Minnesota's state cross-country meet. There, she placed ninth. During the award ceremony, she stood on the ground beside the first- through eighth-place finishers who had all earned their spots atop raised boxes.

"I remember saying (afterward), 'I want to stand on that first block,'" Tollefson said. "As an eighth-grader, I went back to state and I stood on the first block; as a ninth-grader, I stood on that first block; as a 10th-grader, as an 11th-grader, as a 12th-grader, I stood on that first block. And that's still a national record."

Tollefson would go on to run at Villanova University, and then ultimately, the 2004 Olympics.

"You can't grasp it, what it feels like to be Olympic athlete representing your country, to wear the the red, white and blue," she said. "It's pretty amazing."

She recalled walking into the Opening Ceremony.

"The crowd went nuts when the Americans came in," she recalled. "You should have seen the amount of American flags that were being waved. ... I turned around ... and there was LeBron (James) and he had tears streaming down his eyes just like I did."

She used her athletic career to allude to the importance of healthy choices, such as eating fresh foods and getting exercise.

"I'm the biggest fan of going to Dairy Queen, I love going to Chipotle, I even like to have a hamburger every now and then from a fast-food joint," Tollefson said. "But really what we have to keep in mind is what kind of fuel we put into our bodies is how we're going to perform. So if I constantly put that junk into my body, I'm not going to perform very well. And neither are you guys, not only in sports but in the classroom or whatever you like to do."

Broccoli popular?

Kim Goodwin, principal of the school, said Laporte has been participating in the Farm to School program for about three years. The financial award will be used to continue and strengthen those efforts, such as investing in additional knives, cutting board and slicing tools.

Debbie Roller, the head cook, said she has seen firsthand the popularity of the fresh foods, particularly when the apples and oranges are offered sliced rather than whole. Overall, the most popular items have been watermelon, strawberries, and even carrots and broccoli, when they come with accompanying dip.

"I was a little skeptical of course, like everybody is," said Roller, who has been at the school 17 years, recalling the initial introduction of the program. "The more I got familiar with it, then it was like, yeah, this is great."

Numerous people and agencies play key roles in the Farm to School program, officials said. The Statewide Health Improvement Plan, for example, provided a grant to lay the foundwork and infrastructure to get the program going. The growers, members of the Headwaters Food Sovereignty Council, provide the produce.

Cheryl Krystosek, one of the farmers, said in 2012, the group provided 2,000 pounds of produce to school districts such as Bemidji, Blackduck, Nevis and Laporte. This year, they provided 4,000 pounds to Laporte, Bemidji and Red Lake schools.

"They are all our children," she said, referencing the importance of teaching students about the importance of locally grown fresh foods.

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