From farm to tray

Connecting school lunch with the bounty of the land

Whole wheat French bread, edamame, corn on the cob, fresh broccoli, roasted harvest vegetables, baked squash, roasted red potatoes.

You wouldn’t expect to find these foods in the cafeteria — much less on school lunch trays — but they are all now regularly served in St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS). Earlier this year, SPPS successfully completed an 18-month pilot program aiming to provide fresh, healthful and locally produced foods to its schools. What’s even better — kids are on the receiving end.

Jean Ronnei, Director of Nutrition and Commercial Services at St. Paul Public Schools, says that kids are choosing to consume more healthful food options on their own. “We are seeing kids take more and more fruits and vegetables. Even at the high school level, you see kids piling on fruits and vegetables!”

St. Paul Public Schools have been working with Food Options for Children in Urban Schools (FOCUS) and School Food Learning Lab to provide better food for their students. Dorothy Brayley, who was Project Manager of School Food FOCUS Learning Lab with SPPS, says their efforts paid off. “We were able to get those (chicken) nuggets off the plates!”

This past school year, one of SPPS’s achievements included switching out processed chicken with raw chicken cooked in the kitchen. “It’s a huge task. I’ve been working on school food for 15 years now, and this is huge. Huge,” Brayley says.

Replacing processed chicken with a cleaner label is just one of the four priorities SPPS set at the beginning of the 18 month program. SPPS also reduced the added sugar content in flavored milk, provided more whole grain bread products, and increased the amount of local, fresh produce.

Farm to school

St. Paul Public Schools acts as one of the pioneers of Farm to School, a program connecting schools with local farmers through the cafeteria and the classroom.

“It’s really been a great, great thing for the state. We’re supporting small- to mid-sized farmers; we’re helping the economy; we’re getting fresh, local items on the trays to students,” says Mary Anderson, President of the Minnesota School Nutrition Association (MSNA). MSNA and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) have been the driving forces behind the Farm to School program. They have been actively working with schools to spearhead the program across Minnesota.

Farm to School also recognizes the propensity toward obesity among today’s children and combats this through educating kids about the food they eat. Although the state has the lowest number of obese children in the country, nearly one child out of every four in Minnesota is overweight. “There’s a huge disconnect with the children,” Anderson says. “They don’t understand where their little baby carrot came from; they have no comprehension of how it started. This (program) is really allowing us to educate our customers on where their food is coming from.” Kids become aware about the foods they consume, helping them develop healthy habits that counter obesity.

A collective effort

For St. Paul, the process started at the discussion table. SPPS and its community partners — IATP, MSNA, and FOCUS — initially presented the idea of Farm to School to their processors and discussed how to carry through with the program. They then brought in the farmers, who also collaborated with the processors, to determine the foods available during the school year. In this step of the process, flexibility was key. SPPS had to form its menu around the seasonality of the produce coming from the local farming community.

“We can only count on the corn season lasting three weeks at the beginning of the school year,” Ronnei says, “so we menu it twice over three weeks.”

After determining what foods were available to serve, SPPS developed potential recipes, which were then put through many testing stages — both at nutrition centers and in the schools themselves. Positive feedback resulted in teaching the food service staff to create the food items and place them on the menu.

Encouraging participation

So far, initiatives have been growing rapidly and efforts have been extremely successful throughout Minnesota. Since 2008, the number of Minnesota school districts purchasing local foods more than doubled from approximately 30 to 69, according to a survey by MSNA and IATP earlier this year. “The folks that have been working on Farm to School just must be grinning from ear to ear having to see this kind of growth,” Ronnei says.

But for some, the lack of available resources makes districts hesitant about implementing or expanding the program. “Not every district is as fortunate as most of our districts in the metro area,” Anderson says. Cafeterias may not have the proper equipment, facilities, or staff skills to create Farm to School meals. School districts must also consider the availability of local foods from their providers and may not have the extra money needed for healthier food and its distribution. “You may be the chief cook and bottle washer, and you have to do everything. You may have a very small school district, and you just don’t have the resources.”

Many efforts are currently taking place to reduce these deterrents and to encourage more schools to participate. Training programs teach food service directors and staff how to menu plan and produce meals from local foods. A marketing tool kit is being developed to further spread the word. In the upcoming year, MSNA will be actively contacting more local farmers directly to form relationships with schools. Minnesota also sets aside grant money for schools to use toward implementation. “The idea of a grant program for Farm to School is so good,” Ronnei says. “It’s helping communities, helping farmers, exposing kids to new things. And once you got [Farm to School] up and running, you got it. It’s going, but you need that impetus.”

“I only see more and more momentum gathering with this program,” Mary Anderson says, “reaching out to more.”

This fall, SPPS introduced baby bok choy, cantaloupe, 100% romaine lettuce, fresh steamed green beans, and guacamole to their lunch menu. They worked with the American Indian Department to develop the recipe and find the right food products for buffalo wild rice casserole, also new to the menu this school year. Brayley commends SPPS for its unwillingness to settle and its drive to improve. “It just seems that they are really taking off with the creativity and the ideas and the belief that they can keep moving forward.”

With many of the state’s school districts now participating, Minnesota acts as a model for states nationwide to serve healthful and locally grown foods in their school cafeterias, as well as combat obesity, educate their children, and get kids to love the food on their lunch plates.

Lilly Chow was a summer intern with Minnesota Parent.

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