Students discover taste for locally grown food
By Janet Kubat Willette
Date Modified: 10/14/2010 10:12 AM
Dover-Eyota Schools celebrated Farm to School Week by inviting their farmers to school.
Jerry Kathan of Kathan's Ridgeview Orchards in LaCrescent is one of two farmers who accepted the invitation.
Kathan began selling apples to Dover-Eyota Schools in 2009 after meeting food and nutrition director Carrie Frank at his apple stand on the corner of 16th and Broadway in Rochester.
The school market gave him the opportunity to market older varieties and smaller apples, Kathan said. Consumers now want the new varieties, favoring a Zestar! over a State Fair, but the school market gives Kathan the opportunity to have more varieties in his orchard. He has 31 varieties on 20 acres at his family's century-old farm.
It's a little more work to scavenge smaller apples, especially in a year like this when Mother Nature provided more than ample rainfall, Kathan said.
Frank said her goal is to have an apple that will fit in a kindergartner's hand. Students tend to finish smaller apples.
Kathan said he sells the apples at a cost that is affordable for the school, yet at a price that makes it work for him.
But his involvement doesn't end with apple deliveries. In April, Kathan worked with students to plant an orchard of 15 trees at Dover-Eyota High School.
The students are like sponges, said Kathan, a fourth-generation farmer. When they have their own place, they will know how to plant a tree.
Farm to School extends beyond the cafeteria at Dover-Eyota Schools. It's also the educational link in learning where food comes from, Frank said. Kathan is their apple orchard mentor. Their turkey producer visited an animal science classroom last week.
Dover-Eyota Schools have served farm fresh foods since 2007. Albert Lea Public Schools, on the other hand, served local foods for the first time during Farm to School Week 2010.
About 2,000 students were served an all-meat hot dog made from grass-fed beef and pork on Sept. 22, said Mary Nelson, food service director for Albert Lea Public Schools. The hot dogs were purchased from a farm that is located within the school district.
Nelson went to a Farm to School seminar last spring and talked to farmers there. The farmers were scared by the quantities she needed, Nelson said.
The all-meat hot dog was 50 percent more expensive than what she would pay for a regular entree and the farmer needs a two-month lead time to have the item ready. The earliest she would serve it again is December.
She also purchased 400 apples from an orchard in the district. The apples are more expensive, too, she said. A Minnesota Grown apple is 30 cents, compared to 24 cents for a Golden Delicious or Red Delicious, Nelson said.
Serving local foods is extra work on her part. She needed to work the connections and find the product. The prep time was the same.
At Sibley East Schools, students have been feasting on garden fresh produce since school started.
The Sibley East FFA planted a one-acre garden last spring to raise food for the school lunch program. Grants from the Minnesota Agricultural Education Leadership Council, AgStar, Minnesota Valley Electric Co-op and the Statewide Health Improvement Plan helped launch the program, said agricultural education teacher and FFA adviser Jeff Eppen. The money was used to purchase equipment, supplies and seeds. They also planted a seven-acre corn test plot in conjunction with the Sibley County Corn and Soybean Growers.
Sibley East FFA officers tended the garden over the summer, meeting once or twice a week for two to three hours at a time, Eppen said. They found that few students had experience with vegetable gardening or growing plants.
They grew a variety of produce including: cucumbers, beans, tomatoes, potatoes, squash, pumpkins and green peppers.
"We've been serving the students squash and they just love it," said Joan Budahn, Sibley East cook manager. Sibley East includes the communities of Arlington, Gaylord and Green Isle and there are buildings in Arlington and Gaylord. The garden to school project has been piloted at the Arlington site.
They served pumpkin bars and homemade cole slaw made from cabbage grown in the garden. They served refrigerator pickles made from cucumbers grown in the garden. They made and served homemade salsa. They froze 40 gallons of green and yellow beans.
The general response has been positive, Budahn said. Students will approach her and tell her that it tastes like what their grandma makes.
Budahn isn't sure the project will save money, but the produce is fresher and the students seem to enjoy it.
"Their eyes kind of light up when you tell them this came from the garden," Budahn said.
She hopes the project continues and Eppen said they are making plans to expand the garden.
Those plans are in discussion right now, he said. Some things they won't plant and some things they will plant at different times. They will time the garden to ripen in September, when school is back in session. They may start some plants from seed in agricultural classes. Another idea is to give space to elementary classrooms where students could plant a crop that would mature quickly, say radishes, that they could eat in the spring.
Back in Dover-Eyota, Frank said she enjoys the Farm to School project.
"I really knew nothing of farming," said Frank, who was raised in St. Paul. "I grew up with grocery food and I personally can taste the difference."
Food loses nutritional value as it sits on the shelf, she said. Serving local foods provides students with the most nutritious produce that is available.
"I feel it's the best for the kids," Frank said.
Students have dined on cucumber and zucchini coins with low-fat ranch dip, black bean salsa made from local tomatoes, bison, turkey sloppy joes made from free-range turkey, cantaloupe, apples, sweet corn, peppers, onions, squash and potatoes.
But using farm fresh foods wouldn't be possible without the support of the kitchen staff, Frank said.
"If it weren't for the committed kitchen staff, they're the ones who are really rolling up their selves and saying yes we can do this," she said. "This couldn't be possible without the support of the staff."
And the students?
"The students love it, they taste the difference," Frank said.