TRACY - Making a switch to fresher, healthier meals isn't always easy when you're cooking for a whole school. But with help from a state grant program, two area schools have been seeing - and tasting - the difference.
"The kids can tell," said Michele Freeburg, head cook at Walnut Grove Elementary School. When locally-grown vegetables or fruit are on the lunch menu, there's never much left over, she said.
"We started (buying local) last year, but I think we've about tripled the amount this year," Freeburg said.
Photo by Deb Gau
Tracy Area High School students Haylee and Zach Ruppert read through the list of more than a dozen varieties of produce they grow and sell on the family farm. A lot of the food they sell ends up in the TAHS cafeteria.
Both Walnut Grove Elementary and Tracy Area High School got the chance to share their success with a visiting state official earlier this week. Charlie Poster, assistant commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, visited both schools to see how MDA Farm to School grants have helped them provide healthier lunches. Last year, the MDA and the Center for Prevention at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota issued more than $227,000 in grants to 13 schools. Walnut Grove Elementary received more than $40,000 to install a new walk-in freezer and refrigerator to store locally-grown produce, and TAHS received more than $76,000 to purchase appliances and kitchen equipment to prepare fresh fruits and vegetables.
"That was huge," Tracy Superintendent Chad Anderson said of the grant's impact.
The Farm to School Grant program is meant to encourage schools to use more fresh, local ingredients in students' meals, Poster said. The program helps the local economy, he said, and "Kids are getting better food, which in turn helps their education."
However, cooking more food from scratch has meant some changes in how kitchen staff need to work. At Walnut Grove, a bigger freezer was needed to help preserve vegetables for future meals.
As Poster toured the new storage area, Freeburg pointed out supplies of acorn squash waiting to be cooked or preserved. The school also plans to buy plenty of pumpkins this fall, she said.
"We're going to carve them out, bake them, and freeze them for winter," Freeburg said.
Laurie Maeyaert, who helped write the application for Tracy's Farm to School grant, said TAHS also replaced a rusting old walk-in freezer. The grant also helped buy equipment like a steamer for preparing vegetables, and a vacuum-sealer and cooler to preserve them.
TAHS and Walnut Grove have worked with a variety of local food sources, from school gardens to area farmers, and producers like Holmberg Orchards. Maeyaert said one of the important parts about cooking from scratch has been finding good growers to buy ingredients from. When school staff know a local farmer, she said, "The trust factor is there."
Two growers who got special recognition during Poster's visit were TAHS students Haylee and Zach Ruppert. The Ruppert siblings maintain a vegetable garden at the family farm that has supplied hundreds of pounds of produce to area customers, including their own school.
"We grow 15 varieties of fruits and vegetables," Haylee Ruppert said.
The money Haylee and Zach make selling vegetables and melons goes into a savings account for college, said their mother Kim Ruppert.
Staff at TAHS and Walnut Grove said fresh ingredients in school lunches have been a hit with students and teachers. And they've been enjoying a wide variety of veggies, too.
Kim Ruppert remembered Walnut Grove kitchen staff wondering whether young kids would even try the acorn squash she delivered to the school. But when she checked back with Freeburg later, Ruppert said, "She goes, 'Kim, my cooks and I have just been standing with our hands on our hips, watching these first and second-graders eat acorn squash.'"
At TAHS, Anderson said hungry teens have been heading to a salad bar featuring plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, instead of buying a second entree or filling up on bread.
"It's teaching kids that fresh stuff is good for you, and fills you up," Maeyaert said.
Poster said there are still opportunities for Minnesota schools to apply for a Farm to School grant. Gov. Mark Dayton has made funding for the grants a priority for the next two years, Poster said.
"The program has been successful so far, and we want to keep it," he said.
Applications for the second round of Farm to School Grant funding are due by Nov. 1, Poster said. More information on the grant program is available online at www.mda.state.mn.us.