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Heitkamp: A fresh start for North Dakota’s kids

As a parent of two children, I remember how exciting but also hectic the new school year can be — from buying school supplies to driving my daughter to swim practice to even making sure my kids remembered to zip up their backpacks before bounding out the front door to the school bus. And I could tell my children loved that the new academic year meant a fresh start and a clean slate as they walked through those school doors again.

We all want our kids to succeed and schools throughout North Dakota and the country play one of the most important roles in that effort. It’s critical that students, many of whom spend up to seven hours a day at school, are able to grow and excel in the classroom.

An important way to start our kids off on the right foot each day is to make sure they eat a healthy breakfast, lunch and dinner. Various studies have shown that eating healthy meals improves students’ attention, memory and academic performance while reducing obesity rates among kids. All of us need to do our part — at home and at school.

When my mom was a school cook in Mantador, I saw firsthand the work that goes into preparing healthy school meals. Our school cooks take pride in their jobs, and we need to give them the tools and kitchen equipment to feed our kids with the best food. But according to Pew Charitable Trusts, more than 70 percent of North Dakota’s school districts need new or improved kitchen equipment to better serve these healthy meals. And the median cost for the equipment is $18,000 per school in the state.

In 2010, Congress passed important legislation to improve nutrition standards that have led to schools serving more fruits, vegetables and whole grains while reducing high-fat foods and excess calories. The problem was that the law updated school lunch standards without giving schools the support and tools to actually reach those standards. Many school kitchens were built decades ago and designed with little capacity beyond reheating and holding food for dining service. That’s what I want to change.

Earlier this year, I introduced a bipartisan bill with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, to give schools greater access to the tools and resources they need to offer healthy food options for students, reduce waste and make resources stretch further. My School Food Modernization Act would authorize grants and loan assistance to help schools purchase and upgrade equipment, as well as strengthen training to help school food personnel meet updated nutrition standards — all at no additional cost to taxpayers.

In North Dakota, Pew also found that more than $28 million is needed to purchase new or improved equipment. And with nearly one in three adolescents nationwide obese or overweight, we can’t afford to wait any longer. As Congress begins working to reauthorize the school nutrition program, I’m fighting to make sure schools have the tools they need to give every student a nutritious meal. We have to continue to work to make sure students are on healthy and sustainable paths so they can thrive in and outside the classroom.

As children from Pembina to Dickinson get ready to head back to school, reunite with familiar faces, and continue their education, now is a great time for our students to get a fresh start. With great education and wholesome nutrition, North Dakota’s kids will have the energy to sp rint out that front door and gear up for yet another fantastic year.

Heitkamp is a Democrat from North Dakota in the U.S. Senate. Contact her at