Student Farmers Contribute to Success of Healthy School Meals

One Wisconsin school district is taking Farm to School to the next level! With the help of school nutrition professionals, science and math teachers and the Future Farmers of America, students in the School District of Holmen have helped raise their own chickens, grow their own crops on donated land and harvest from hydroponic greenhouses. At the helm of each project, Nutrition Services Supervisor Michael Gasper has helped organize Holmen’s Farm to School program into the great success it is today. In addition to student-grown and raised foods, he also selects produce and meats from local Wisconsin farms for school menus.

“Everything we do, we try and do district wide – keeping everything very local,” said Gasper, whose district has won the Food Management Best Concepts Award. “The state of Wisconsin has certainly been one of the leaders in farm to school, and this side of the state has been pretty innovative. I’m a member of a food co-op that has the world’s largest concentration of organic farms.”

The 2016-2017 school year marked the fourth year students helped raise chickens in the district, nurturing and caring for them from tiny day-old chicks to full mature chickens. With the help of their FFA advisor and the agriculture teacher, students will create their very own mobile coops for chickens next year.

Chicken Dinner kids
Students in the School District of Holmen (WI) enjoy baked chicken that district high school students helped raise.

Gasper worked with USDA to find a regulated processor, who processes and freezes the chickens. These chickens are baked and served during a “Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner” event, which supplies enough baked chicken for 3,000 servings.

This coming school year, pigs will be making an appearance at the District of Holmen.

“We’ve found a processor who will make us low sodium bacon and ham, fresh pork chops, ground pork, etc.” said Gasper. “These kids will have the chance to help raise and care for these animals and then we will have locally raised, fresh, low sodium options for students’ meals. That’s very exciting.” The district will likely be able to manage 15 pigs at a time, 30 pigs total, said Gasper.

Students also till the soil on the many acres of land that have been donated by local property owners, increasing their sweet corn and asparagus harvests. When schools start in September, there is a kick-off to the Harvest of the Month, a program that started about eight years. Holmen, along with four other school districts, celebrate one of the local harvests each month, offering the harvested produce in school menu items.

Bountiful Harvest
Students in Holmen’s (WI) Future Farmers of America collect the sweet corn they’ve planted and grown for fellow students.

According to Gasper, the La Crosse – Mayo Clinic Health System and Gundersen Health System, of Western Wisconsin, signed onto the program a year ago. The group helps to get local grocery stores celebrating the same harvest of the month, ensuring students can take what they’ve learned and apply it at home.

The School Calendar Local Harvest of the Month includes eggs in January, mushrooms in February, squash in March, edamame in April, garlic in May and carrots in June.

hydroponics SAE project
With advanced hydroponics farming, Holmen Schools (WI) are hoping to grown enough lettuce for the entire school district’s 3,700 students.

The agriculture, math and science teachers have helped build a small greenhouse at the high school. They have been growing produce through hydroponics farming for about six years. The group has recently received a series of grants to quadruple the size of the greenhouse, which Gasper hopes will provide lettuce for the whole district and potentially strawberries year-round.

“Whatever we can’t use, we will sell to fundraise for the FFA,” he said. “In a district with 3,700 students, the produce and meat they are raising will go a long way.”

“What we have extra we blanche and freeze it so we have some local produce through the winter,” said Gasper. “The food serves nutritional value to the kids, but it’s great to get the kids in on the educational side.”

This year, the district yielded its largest crop or 2,500 asparagus. This will be the first time they serve their locally grown asparagus and it will be used for a celebratory dinner held at the high school at the end of the school year. In addition to the school district’s asparagus, they will serve a four-ounce steak from a farm down the street from the school. Getting in on the fun, the high school principal will join Gasper and man the steaks at the grill.

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