It's not hard to get people interested in eating locally in greater Minnesota, Stephanie Heim said. Bringing locally-grown foods into the schools is another idea that clicks, because it's a good deal for farmers and kids alike.
"People get that it's a new, steady market for farmers," said Heim, coordinator of the University of Minnesota Extension's Farm to School initiative. Students also get the chance to develop healthy eating habits and learn where their food comes from.
Over the past few years, farm-to-school initiatives, which encourage schools to include locally grown foods in school meals, have started to catch on in Minnesota. Schools in Southwest Minnesota are showing interest, too.
The University of Minnesota Extension has had a farm-to-school initiative for about two years, Heim said, although the idea has been gaining momentum nationwide since the mid-1990s. The Extension hosted a series of workshops on farm-to-school around the state this spring, and even local nutrition educators will be trying to get the word out about eating locally.
There have already been some successes with farm-to-school lunches in southwest Minnesota.
Heim said the Willmar Public School District has been "kind of a front-runner," including the farm-to-school concept in its lunch program since about 2003. Willmar started out small, offering locally grown apples for students and gradually taste-testing other local ingredients.
In Marshall, the Marshall Area Christian School started its own local lunch program, called Daily Bread. A group of parents, including Julie Christensen, Lori Lynner Skrien, Stacey Ross and Melinda Meier, helped start the program.
"It's good for everyone all around," said Lynner Skrien. The school buys ingredients like eggs, honey, flour and even meat from producers in southwest Minnesota. "We use a lot of growers that would supply to farmer's markets."
Lynner Skrien said the Montevideo branch of the Land Stewardship Project was a big help in networking with area producers. It's also possible to find Minnesota-grown frozen vegetables during the winter, Christensen said.
Christensen said MACS is currently able to offer locally-grown meals to students twice a week.
Christensen said there are challenges to face in starting a farm-to-school lunch program. Transportation costs for the food are one, and cooking entire meals from scratch requires a lot of work. Certain products like meat and processed grains must meet USDA safety standards.
Reliability is also an important factor for producers, she said.
"The farmer needs to know it isn't just a fad," Christensen said.
However, Heim said it's possible to start small, like Willmar did, or to focus on teaching kids about farming. Part of the Extension's initiative includes education, "So kids understand where their food comes from."
It's also possible for schools to team up with food service companies for more local ingredients. Heim said food service company Taher Inc. has committed to purchasing more local foods in several school districts across Minnesota.