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Published May 06, 2010, 07:21 AM

Farm to School Program brings local produce into local cafeterias

When Brent Campbell, a chemical-free market gardener from Iron River, Wis., supplied the 8,000 students of the Superior School District with fresh apples, students enthusiastically welcomed the fresh produce.

By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal

When Brent Campbell, a chemical-free market gardener from Iron River, Wis., supplied the 8,000 students of the Superior School District with fresh apples, students enthusiastically welcomed the fresh produce.

But after he and his wife spent six hours each washing, cutting, seeding and packaging their home-grown winter squash for those same students, at first the youngsters weren’t sure just what to make of it.

“The first time we served it, the little kids wondered what it was, so there was a fair amount of waste,” admitted Superior Food Service Director Jeanne Hopkins. “The second time around, however, a lot less went to waste. What it really amounts to is trying to change the students’ thinking patterns about what’s on their plates,” she concluded.

Campbell and Hopkins were among some 100 area residents gathered at the Cloquet Forestry Center last Thursday with one common goal in mind – to bring more local foods to community cafeterias. The Farm to School Program (more generically referred to as “School to Cafeteria”) is a recent initiative of the University of Minnesota Extension Service, which sponsored the day-long conference in consort with

various sustainable farming initiatives and agricultural organizations.

“Our goal,” said Stephanie Heim, Farm to School coordinator, “is to bring food producers together with buyers and food service workers in order to supply cafeterias with fresh, local produce in place of the

institutional, processed foods that many of them currently serve.”

Participants in last Thursday’s workshop met with food service inspectors, farmers, growers and buyers who have already had experience in bringing locally grown foods into schools, nursing homes, hospitals and other institutions.

During a panel discussion facilitated by Cree Bradley, coordinator of Lake Superior Farm Beginnings, participants outlined their personal

incentives for participating in the Farm to Cafeteria program.

“I believe it’s a matter of protecting public health by knowing where our food is coming from,” said Cara Pederson, environmental health specialist.

“My goal is to put something on the plates of children that will entice them to take a look at what’s growing around them,” added Beth Dohnansky, food service director for Cloquet Public Schools.

For Ron Strasburg, senior account representative at Upper Lakes Foods, the overriding incentive was “to source more fresh, locally grown products [for our company to sell] and begin to relate more with local farmers, since we’re a local company,” he said.

Janaki Fisher-Merritt, co-owner of the Food Farm in rural Wrenshall, said his aim was two-fold – to improve the local agricultural economy and expose young people to the types of fresh foods that will

encourage them toward more wholesome diets.

“I’d like to see the number of people making a living at farming on the increase once again,” said Fisher-Merritt. “Getting locally grown food into our schools also means the opportunity to connect kids with ‘real foods,’ and that’s really important. Kids

don’t like vegetables that don’t taste good.”

Protecting public health was of high importance to Jim Topie, a food inspector from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

“When you can connect an actual face with the food supply, you can pretty much determine what you’re getting from them,” he said.

Participants in last Thursday’s workshop agreed that some of the challenges in bringing locally grown food products into local cafeterias include the lack of a local processing center, availability of foods in large enough quantities to service large institutions, and the need to get the type of price that reflects what it actually costs local farmers and producers to grow the food.

“It’s not just a matter of being able to cover the cost of fuel for our tractors,” said Fisher-Merritt. “We have to be able to afford the land on which we grow our products.”

According to Dohnansky, the locally grown products are well worth the cost, even in times of limited budgets.

“For something this good,” she said, “it’s worth spending a little extra.”

Some of the participants said teachers utilize the concept of fresh, locally grown products as a “teachable moment” with students.

“One school requested squash in its natural state,” related Strasburg. “They first showed it to kids in the classroom and talked about what it was and how it was grown, and then it was served to them in the cafeteria the following day.”

Campbell, as a grower who supplies fresh produce to Superior schools, has been invited to visit students in the classroom to help connect the food source with the food being served in the cafeteria.

“Having locally grown foods on the school menu can be a huge marketing tool,” said Hopkins, “especially with younger parents.”

One participant questioned if the “neighbor across the street” from a school or other institution can be considered a farmer when it comes to supplying fresh garden products for the cafeteria. Topie explained

that produce in its raw, unprocessed state qualifies as an exemption from most food inspection rulings and can be sold or donated by the producer who grows it. Both of the school food service directors

concurred that home gardeners can be a valuable source of fresh foods.

“Even if you only have 20 cucumbers, I’ll take a look at them,” said Dohnansky. “The Department of Health is OK with that, and donations are always welcome. Even in small quantities, we can use them for our a la cart menu, as snacks or on our salad bar.”

School gardens have also become a viable source of fresh produce. Hopkins said the Superior schools bought 100 tomato plants last spring, and students in two classes cared for the plants over the summer.

“When we served the diced tomatoes in tacos the following fall,” she said, “elementary students had a hard time relating them to the same plants we’d stuck in the dirt the spring before!”

One of the highlights of last Thursday’s session was a meal catered by Jim ’n Jo’s Catering using all locally produced foods, including such things as wild rice from Jim Vnuk, bison from Quarter Master Buffalo in Esko, garlic and potatoes from the Fisher-Merritt Food Farm in Wrenshall, cheese from Green Pastures Dairy in Atkinson, beef from Four Quarters Holding in Wrenshall, maple syrup from Spirit Lake Native Products, and parsnips, squash, and potatoes from the gardens of Joel Rosen in Mahtowa.

It was a little like preaching to the choir, however, since most of those participating in the workshop were already convicted about the value of fresh, locally produced foods.

“When kids eat better, they learn better,” said Fisher-Merritt, who is also chair of the Wrenshall School Board. “Reputable studies have shown that healthy food makes a huge difference in their ability to reason and concentrate.”

The University of Minnesota Extension is coordinating Farm to Cafeteria workshops throughout the state this spring, with earlier workshops held in McIntosh, Baxter, Windom and Stewartville.

In order to access a directory of local food producers, visit superiorgrown.org.

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