Farm to School program finding success in region
WORTHINGTON -- Imagine having 800 ears of fresh, locally-grown sweet corn delivered to your local school to serve students for lunch.
It sounds delicious, but who is going to shuck all of the ears and how much is it going to cost?
Cathy Rogers, food service director at Pipestone Area Schools, has found producers willing to supply her with fresh fruits and vegetables, and can get enough volunteer labor from students at school to help make it work.
Rogers has been instrumental in leading the Farm to School program at Pipestone Area, and she was one of four panelists to speak about the program Monday night at Worthington High School.
Nearly 30 people attended the meeting, from local produce growers to food service employees, school board members and local leaders. The Farm to School project is a primary focus of Minnesota's Statewide Health Improvement Plan (SHIP), and is partially funded through state dollars.
"It's an attempt to link our farming community to local schools so students have access to local fruits and vegetables and farmers have a new market," said American Cancer Society's Rebecca Thoman of the meeting. ACS has joined SHIP in promoting Farm to School as a way to attack the growing epidemic of childhood obesity.
With 140 school districts and nearly 800 schools participating in the Farm to School program, SHIP officials are hoping to expand the program further. About 80 percent of school districts in the Southwest SHIP region (Lincoln, Lyon, Murray, Nobles and Rock counties) participate in Farm to School at some level.
Paul Karelis, Worthington High School principal, said the local district is starting its own garden this year. A nearly 2-acre plot has been planted with sweet corn, tomatoes, cantaloupe, watermelon and radishes.
"You really have to watch what you're going to try to produce," Karelis said. "Squash and eggplant, those are all good things, but how often are you going to see eggplant on your school menu?"
Rogers actually introduced eggplant at Pipestone Area this past school year and, to her surprise, the students ate it all. The eggplant, along with sweet corn, tomatoes, squash, carrots, salad greens, peppers, cabbage and potatoes are purchased from Edgerton-area farmers Gary and Marsha Boverhof. The Boverhofs were also seated on the panel Monday night.
Rogers said she began buying local produce four years ago, starting when a producer showed up at the school with a trailer filled with melons. That first year she purchased watermelon and cantaloupe, and it expanded the second year with the purchase of apples from Stonegate Orchard near Slayton.
"Then SHIP came in and said they had money to help with Farm to School efforts," Rogers said, adding she attended educational sessions and speed dating-type programs in which food service managers met with local growers to discuss supply and demand opportunities.
It was during one of those speed dating-type programs that Rogers met the Boverhofs, who own a 30-acre vegetable plot just 20 miles from the Pipestone school.
"One of the advantages in a smaller school is we have the shaking hand agreement," Rogers explained. "We don't have any contracts. I don't menu (the food). When it comes, that's what we have for lunch. It's awesome, it works great."
In addition to the Boverhofs and Stonegate Orchard, Rogers gets fresh hydroponic romaine lettuce from one farmer and hydroponic tomatoes from another. Approximately 18 percent of her lunch program budget is dedicated for Farm to School products, and nearly 30 percent of the food served in the school cafeteria comes from local growers. Pipestone Area serves approximately 1,200 students in the school lunch program.
"It is more expensive, it is more time consuming, but we're there for the kids," Rogers said, adding cooks in the school then use the items for a lot of made-from-scratch foods.
Just as the fresh fruits and vegetables are healthy options for students and a good choice for food service workers to serve, the Farm to School program also benefits the growers by having a steady market for their product.
"It's just another market for us," said Gary Boverhof, adding their farm already sold wholesale and at farmer's markets.
"The biggest issue we have, probably, is that the seasons don't really jive," he said. "Summer is vegetable season."
The Boverhofs recently added a greenhouse to their operation to extend the growing season later into the fall and get fresh produce earlier in the spring, which they hope will provide more opportunities to market their produce to the schools.
With 350 students in the school's summer program, Rogers said she is able to utilize some of the summer crops the Boverhofs raise. What she'd really like is a way to process and store those foods for use during the school year.
Already, students in the family and consumer sciences classes at Pipestone Area use the leftover produce as they learn about food preservation methods.
Bonnie Frederickson, a former public health worker and now SHIP employee, said not all Farm to School programs look alike. Food service workers in schools need to figure out what works best for them.
"What Farm to School looks like in one place is not how it's going to look in another," she said.
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.