Willmar Farm to School Program

8 08 2009

The anticipation of a public school lunch does not evoke mouth-watering excitement at the promise of happily filled bellies. Rather, the stereotypical idea of public school lunches contain some of the following images: tater tot hot dish, boiled spinach cooked beyond any nutritional value, Wonderbread, canned peaches, an assembly-line set up of which Henry Ford would be proud, and angry, hairnet-donning lunch ladies bearing large wooden spoons and looks that say “don’t complain, just eat it.”

But a school lunch shouldn’t be like that. School lunch can include bison hot dogs, baked apples, wild rice pilaf, and can involve using student input to shape the menu. That’s how Willmar School District does it, using a Farm to School program to bring healthy Minnesota products into the cafeteria.

Three years ago, Willmar School District adopted a Farm-to-School Program to bring local, healthy food into their school lunches as a part of “Steps to a Healthier Willmar” initiative. Nationally, there are more than 1,000 Farm to School programs in 35 states, creating new and secure markets for agricultural producers and assisting in the fight against childhood obesity. Willmar is the first in the state of Minnesota to adapt it through the efforts of Annette Derouin, the Willmar Food District Director, and a partnership with several state organizations.

It has not been an easy process, but a rewarding one for both children and producers alike. The Willmar model started small, by bringing apples in to the lunchroom as a taste test to gauge the interest of their test subjects: elementary school children. Since then, several different food items have been tested in Willmar elementary schools including squash, wild rice, bison, wheat, berries, tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage, cheese, dried beans, corn, and honey with mixed success among their diverse group of students.

Farm2School Project, MISA

So how did Willmar do it?

School menu-planning needs to be done months ahead of time, so Annette started by planning to test around one new food item a month according keeping in mind what is seasonally available, affordable and appealing to elementary and middle school age eaters. Annette admits to using her family as a trial for most of the recipes before bringing them to her kitchen staff.

Finding producers was a task in itself, as Annette and her staff had to ensure they are always working within Minnesota food safety laws and regulations. For example, all meat needs to be processed within a USDA processing plant and the farmer needs to have a food handler’s license, whereas raw fresh fruit and vegetables and unprocessed whole grains can be purchased directly from a farmer. Once she makes contact with the producers though, she has found it to be a great and rewarding process. Annette notes that, “these farmers want to work with us and it can create a new market for them.” She explained that orchards typically can’t sell smaller apples but that they are the perfect size for 1/2 size portions for elementary school children, which provides the school to serve them and creates a new market for the apple orchards.

To test food items in the cafeteria, Annette set up food tasting stations the day before an item was to be featured on a menu. Initially they had students fill out a short survey but found that their staff didn’t have the time to process all the forms before it was to be featured. They have since moved to a simple method of having students throw away the test cups in garbage cans labeled with either a smiley face or one with a frown: the one the most full at the end of the lunch rush showing how the tasters reacted to it.

Generally, after being taste tasted students respond to the new food items well and the times when they haven’t have served as good learning lessons. The first time wild rice was featured for lunch Somali students thought they were being served ants though they responded to it well the day prior, which made it clear that education had to be provided to the students about what they were eating.

As Willmar develops their Farm to School program, the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture has been working with Annette to develop an online toolkit to assist other Minnesota schools in bringing local food into their cafeterias. The online toolkit provides information about purchasing the products, producers selling it in each region of the state, sample newsletters, home recipes, menus and educational materials for the different featured items.

Annette has also been working hard to spread the Farm to School message to other school nutrition directors, which brought us to an annual state-wide training session hosted by the Minnesota School Nutrition Association. Annette presented an overview of the national program and the Willmar model then brought the attendees into the school’s home economics kitchen to try out the home recipes for a potluck style lunch.

finished plate by Emily Larson

learning by Megan HinesKeeping an educational focus on the exercise, Annette divided the participants into ten different groups that were responsible for cooking an item, creating a public service announcement and developing newsletter content for the food item. The participants definitely learned a lot – starting with how to be flexible in a small environment missing most of the necessary cooking utensils.

We were charged with baking cornbread with a few alterations to how it would normally be done. We quickly found making corn bread by Emily Larsonthat we did not have a mixing bowl or measuring cups, so we improvised, using a large metal cooking pot to mix the ingredients. Also, since school was not in session and the home recipes called from much smaller quantities of ingredients, so the cornbread that would normally include Minnesota cornmeal was substituted with store bought items that Annette could purchase with minimal waste.

corn bread by Emily LarsonAs each of the home recipes neared their finish, the sterile classroom slowly filled with enticing scents ranging from baked apples to sweet and sour popcorn chicken. Our stomachs were taking notice of the aromas, and as the last item neared its finish you could sense the excitement in the room to try the potluck of Farm to School recipes. When the time finally came to eat, each plate was strategically organized to taste a little of each dish and what was a loud chatter turned into silence as everyone started to enjoy the meal.

Keeping the school programs in mind, upon finishing each group shared their morning announcements designed to let students know about how the Farm to School item would be featured in their lunch that day. The announcements let everyone show their creative side while engaging an audience of listeners and group feedback was given at the end of the activity.

When lunch was over, it was clear that Annette had accomplished her goals of the day – she successfully got Minnesota School Nutrition Directors excited about the idea of bringing Minnesota products into the lunch room.

To see more photos from the Minnesota School Nutrition Association’s Farm to School training, see the Flickr slideshow.

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