The past few years, the Farm to School program has been growing in more ways than one - growing fresh, healthy food and growing in popularity - both of which benefit local students, farmers and communities in Minnesota.
As the result of a Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP) grant, Southwest Health and Human Services (SWHHS) hopes to enhance the program's success even more.
"All the counties in the state of Minnesota received money for two big things: reducing obesity and tobacco use," said Carol Biren, health educator at SWHHS. "With obesity, you're working on encouraging healthy food and physical activity. It's really all about making the easy choice the healthy choice."
In the Third Survey of School Foodservice Leaders, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) reported that number of Minnesota school districts participating in the Farm to School program rose dramatically, from 10 schools in 2006 to its current total of 123 districts.
"It's basically a program that has been growing around the nation and in Minnesota," said Cheri Mathiowetz, a registered dietitian who works at Hy-Vee and also helps to coordinate the program with Biren. "Our aim is getting more locally-grown products to the schools from our local farmers. There's been a lot of enthusiasm already, but we'd like to have an even greater awareness of it in the community."
Mathiowetz spends time contacting schools in four counties - Lincoln, Lyon, Murray and Pipestone - and connecting them with local growers. Participating schools in the area include Marshall, Canby, Lakeview, Lincoln HI, Murray County Central, Russell-Tyler-Ruthton, Dawson-Boyd and Yellow Medicine East.
"I meet with the schools and see where they're at and where they're interested in going," Mathiowetz said. "We're working on developing healthier lifestyles and combating obesity. It's been a good program."
SWHHS can help with things such as school menu plans, budgeting, connecting growers with schools and with projects, like starting orchards and gardens and building greenhouses.
"Four of the schools we're working with will actually be planting gardens," Biren said. "Then they'll use the product right in their own school. RTR's garden is almost an acre. We're also able to use some of our SHIP dollars to get the growing season going sooner with a greenhouse or purchasing tools for a garden."
Like most schools that are involved in Farm to School, Marshall Public School tries to encourage students to eat more fruits and vegetables. Taher Food Service director Lori Fruin reports using a variety of them on the MPS menu, including watermelon, muskmelon, tomatoes, sweet corn, squash and pumpkin.
"We've seen so much excitement with the schools and growers," Mathiowetz said. "Through this program, classes can go on field trips to their farms. Many times, Ag students go help grow them and get very involved. There's a sense of pride for them when they see the school cafeteria serving what they helped grow."
Most of the locally-grown foods currently brought into area schools are fruits and vegetables, but some districts are supplied with herbs, like garlic, and meats such as pork, beef and bison.
"It can be tricky with a shortened growing season in Minnesota, but there are some things schools can do to get fresh items over the winter," Biren said. "Some will have bison or get eggs locally. It depends on the school's storage sometimes, too. And, if there are people out there that have other foods available that we can get connected with, growers should let us know."
Mathiowetz believes that some schools are hesitant to participate because they're not familiar with the process. The downside of the program is that it may cost slightly more or involve more preparation time than purchasing a ready-made product.
"Some things are already clean, but you might have to chop it up yourself," Mathiowetz said. "But from a food vendor, you'd just pop it in the oven. Sometimes schools don't think they have the manpower for it.
"Food on a smaller scale can sometimes be higher, too. But orchards, for example, might have some apples that are smaller than they want to be selling, so they give a really good discount. Those smaller apples are great for elementary students."
Biren found out that some apples travel 1,500 miles before being consumed.
"You can imagine that by the time the kids eat them, they don't taste so good," she said. "They're healthier when you get them locally. The produce not only looks good, but it tastes good."
School foodservice staff and local farmers are set to come together for an informational and networking meeting about the Farm to School program from 3-4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 5, at the Marshall Area YMCA. To register by March 31, e-mail Cheri.Mathiowetz@swmhhs.