EYOTA, Minn. — One school day this month, students at Dover-Eyota Public Schools partook in a virtual tour of a local farm before they enjoyed an "all-Minnesota lunch" consisting of meat from that farm as well as other locally sourced products.
"It was locally-raised meat in hot dogs and hamburgers, on buns from St. Charles Bakery and produce from here in Eyota," said Carrie Frank, food and nutrition director for Dover-Eyota Public Schools. "A school lunch that was 100% local, and we're very proud of that fact."
Frank said that the district started its Farm to School program in 2008, beginning with the district purchasing apples from Sekapp Orchards in Rochester. A couple years later with students planted 15 apples trees that they now rely on for fresh apples and homemade applesauce.
"Now we purchase all our produce from a local farm here in Eyota and beef from a local producer," Frank said.
Jessica and Peter Desens have operated Goldenrust Farm just north of Eyota since 2011, when they purchased the 40 acres in rural Olmsted County. The couple also runs an additional 120 acres on top of their home acres where they raise beef, pork and lamb for retail cuts.
Jessica Desens said that Goldenrust Farms provides beef, hot dogs and hamburgers for the Farm to School program with Dover-Eyota. She's a graduate of the district, along with her parents and grandparents, and their three children are students in the district now.
She said after the farm got its license to sell retail cuts of meat a little over a year ago, they looked to get more "directly involved with the consumer" as well as secure a more consistent price for their products. They knew the school had purchased meat in the past from the same butcher they used, Burt's Meats in Eyota, so she reached out to Frank and said they would be interested in working with the school.
"That was kind of how quickly it started, and now they do those once-a-month," said Desens of the hamburgers and hot dogs they provide the Dover-Eyota students.
She said their participation in the Farm to School program is a "big deal" to their family.
She said the grain they feed their animals down to the nutritionist who treats their herds are from the Eyota area.
"It's just kind of this great big circle, and then to be able to feed the kids high-quality protein from a local source is just a win-win for everybody," Desens said.
Shortly after Frank started her job with the Dover-Eyota district, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was going into place. The program gave the U.S. Department of Agriculture the authority to set nutritional standards for school meals, provided additional funding to meet those standards and helped communities establish local farm to school networks.
Frank said it resulted with her starting to remove salt and pepper shakers because the district's meals had sodium levels that were too high. She got a lot of pushback from staff for doing this, so she invited the then-superintendent to the elementary school where they were already offering locally-sourced foods.
"He was so excited, and said 'Carrie, they are eating the corn and it doesn't have butter or salt on it,'" said Frank. "If you bring a fresh, local and tasty product to the tray, they don't need to cover it up."
She told the superintendent that they had "changed the environment."
Along with produce and meat, currently the Dover-Eyota Public Schools also get dairy products, salad greens, cabbage and tangelos from area producers.
Desens said she thinks kids have a greater appreciation for the food when they know exactly where it came from, and they get more excited for what's on the menu at school.
"It's made them more aware compared to it just being a regular school lunch," she said.
She said when the family drives by farms that raised the watermelon and the corn they eat at school, their kids are delighted.
"Other kids in the community also share that same excitement, and some of the parents have reached out in the summer to say 'hey, can I pick up some of those hot dogs that my kids really love,'" Desens said.
Farm to School Month
Gov. Tim Walz proclaimed this month as Minnesota Farm to School Month, encouraging residents to share local farm-to-school stories and "express gratitude for school nutrition professionals and farmers providing essential services to feed our kids during the COVID-19 pandemic."
“When our schools serve Minnesota kids locally grown food, it’s a win for everybody,” said Thom Petersen, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. “Kids eat healthier, small farms have local buyers and our agricultural economy benefits. I’m proud that Minnesota is a national leader in Farm to School.”
Mary Cathryn Ricker, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Education, said that farm to school programs "get the nourishment they need with the bonus of opportunities to learn about where their food is produced."
According to the MDA, Farm to School programming started more than 20 years ago when when interested parties began to organize around the goals to support community-based food systems, strengthen family farms and improve student health by increasing fruit and vegetable consumption.
According to data from the USDA, 51% of Minnesota schools (268 districts) participate in farm to school activities.