Bringing more local foods to school lunch

October is National Farm to School Month, an opportunity for school districts to shine a light on all of their efforts to provide local foods on student lunch trays. 

In central Minnesota, Nay Ah Shing and Pine Grove Nutrition Services Coordinator Deborah Foye has been cultivating relationships with area farmers for produce and meat for the last decade.

She often works with farm in the nearby town of Palisade to provide beef, chicken, pork and eggs for school meals.  She works with another farmer to provide fruits and vegetable for menus so that on specially designated farm to school days, all of the food on the tray is locally sourced. She notes that there are some special requirements to ensuring high quality for school meals.

“You can’t just bring in local meat from anyone, it has to be processed at a USDA certified plant,” said Deborah Foye, Nay Ah Shing School/Pine Grove Nutrition Services Coordinator.

Students learning about medicinal and edible plants.

Her district has about 160 students, mostly from The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, a federally recognized American Indian tribe. That has provided some unique ways of adding farm to school items to the lunch menu.

“An employee of the district is from a neighboring Native American tribe came. She came in and talked to the students about medicinal and edible plants, she took us on a nature walk to show us the plants,” said Foye.“ We started the seeds in the classrooms, and let them grow under lights, then transplanted them into the gardens.”

The school gardens also provide fruits and vegetables for the schools recently reopened salad bars. Among the items grown in the school gardens are cucumbers, tomatoes, broccoli cabbage, yellow squash, cantaloupe, potatoes and peppers.

Nay Ah Shing student planting in school’s garden

The school nutrition team tends to the gardens during the summer while school is not in session.  From the fruit in the gardens, they have made grape jelly and raspberry jam and served it with school breakfast.

School nutrition directors often share information with their counterparts in other districts, often the case in central Minnesota.  Kathy Faust from Crosslake Community Schools was looking for a local source of beef and eggs and was able to connect with Foye’s contact.

Farmer speaks to Crosslake Community School students about their crops.

“The referral helps to make a farm to school program successful, you already know that farmer or meat processor has a good reputation,” said Kathy Faust, Coordinator of Food and Nutrition Services for Crosslake Community Schools. 

Crosslake Community Schools is a small public charter school with about 175 students in its K-8 classes. Faust says one of the school’s goals is environmental education, they try to build awareness of what students can do in their daily lives to be responsible environmental stewards.

Solarium at Crosslake Community Schools

“We have a solarium in the school, where we grow several crops including peppers, lettuce, tomatoes and strawberries to use in the lunchroom,” said Faust.  “Growing the foods indoors helps because of the climate here in Minnesota. This gives us a chance to grow the crops during the school year.” 

Crosslake Community School also makes sure there is a use for leftover food. A family from the school community owns a pig farm and the scraps are often saved and fed to the pigs.  Last school year, the school purchased a pig from the farm to be used for sausage links, sausage patties and bacon.

Faust says being in a small school has some advantages. She is able to share with the teachers different educational programs she comes across while seeking Minnesota grown food. 

Crosslake Community School staff with MN grown apples and squash

Many MN districts take part in the “Great Lakes Apple Crunch” during the month of October. Schools pick a time to bring all of their students together to take a bite out of a locally grown apple. While Faust was seeking apples from a local orchard for the Apple Crunch, she discovered they offered field trips. She passed that information along to a teacher who looked into taking the students there as a way to incorporate what they were eating into a lesson.

First Kiss Apples were the favorite during an apple taste test at Crosslake Community Schools.

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