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Minn. ag commissioner visits Bemidji to highlight Farm to School program

BEMIDJI, Minn -- A group of third-graders at Northern Elementary in Bemidji, Minn., huddled around their lunch trays, comparing the fresh foods they'd chosen to accompany their spaghetti.

Northern Elementary School head cook Jody Strowbridge shows Minnesota Department of Agriculture Commissioner Dave Fredierickson their new walk in cooler that purchased through the 2014 Farm to School Grant on Tuesday afternoon. The commissioner was visiting the schools that received similiar grants that allow the use of more locally grown produce. (Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer)
Northern Elementary School head cook Jody Strowbridge shows Minnesota Department of Agriculture Commissioner Dave Fredierickson the school's new walk-in cooler that was purchased through the 2014 Farm to School Grant. The commissioner was visiting the schools that received similar grants that allow the use of more locally grown produce. (Monte Drapee/Forum News Service)

BEMIDJI, Minn -- A group of third-graders at Northern Elementary in Bemidji, Minn., huddled around their lunch trays, comparing the fresh foods they'd chosen to accompany their spaghetti.

Avery Anderson and Mason Graves agreed the strawberries were their favorite.

"I like my salad," said Andre Maruska.

"Yeah, they always have salad and they always have carrots," said Diane Olson.

But in addition to the mainstay salad and carrots, a variety of other fresh fruits and vegetables also are offered each day. On Oct. 21, other choices included strawberries, melon, bell peppers and tomatoes. On other days, radishes, cucumbers, snap peas, beets and green beans have been on the menu.

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"We try to have a variety," said Karen Ophus, who has been working in the cafeteria since 1995. "They usually take what they want -- and they eat what they take."

Northern Elementary serves about 500 students in five lunch periods daily. But on Oct. 21, the school served a few more people than usual, as Dave Frederickson, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, visited the school to dine with staff members and local farmers in celebration of Farm to School Month.

Marlene Webb, food service coordinator for Bemidji Area Schools, said the district is in its fifth year of participating in the Farm to School program.

'"It's the kids who really reap the benefits," she said, noting that the program has grown locally every year. The district further plans to increase its local purchases by another 25 percent.

Frederickson's tour of Northern Elementary's cafeteria highlighted not only the fresh, locally grown foods available for students, but also featured the school's new walk-in cooler that will enable the school to store more foods longer. The freezer was purchased with grants awarded from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and Blue Cross Blue Shield.

"Those grants ... really help us make some considerable changes in our programs and procedures," said Bemidji Area Schools Superintendent Jim Hess, crediting Webb with being able to successfully apply for such Farm to School grants.

Frederickson applauded the offerings to students and their impact on student learning and said the Department of Agriculture is committed to helping local farmers.

"I'm an old educator myself. I left teaching and went back to the farm years and years ago .... so I get it, I fully understand it, how important it is," he said. "But our focus is making sure you guys (the farmers) have opportunities."

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The number of Minnesota school districts in Farm to School rose from 10 in 2006 to 123 in 2010, according to the University of Minnesota Extension Office.

Local farmers who visited Northern Elementary included Michael Schumacher and Marina Lovell, who own and operate Farmucopia CSA between Bemidji and Cass Lake, a Community Supported Agriculture farm that connects consumers directly with farmers. Excess produce from Farmucopia goes to the Farm to School program, which is coordinated and distributed by Cheryl Krystosek.

Also attending the event was Grace Brogan with Renewing the Countryside, an effort aimed at strengthening rural America by championing and supporting sustainable and innovative initiatives, businesses, and projects. Among them is an effort to expand Farm to School efforts to early-learning and childcare centers. Brogan said there will be a seminar for childcare providers on the topic on Nov. 8 in Bemidji.

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