Benson Bakery

10 09 2009

By Emily Larson

After working at Benson Bakery for the last 30 years, Becky knows how to make a Napoleon. First she spread a thick DSC_8688custard over a fluffy puff pastry. Then she topped it more pastry, custard, pastry again and finally a layer of vanilla and chocolate frosting, bringing it all with a decorative smear of a knife. Becky is the cake decorator extraordinaire at Benson Bakery in Benson, MN, and she knows the bakery “inside and out,” which includes the customers. “I know who orders the cakes so I can design them how I think they’d like it,” she explained. That’s the beauty of working in a town with a few more than 3,000 people.

Owner Toby Johannessen is the third generation of his family to own Benson Bakery. His grandfather, Norsk Johannessen emigrated from Norway in the early 20th century. Arriving in New York, he then moved westward to find a job. After working in South Dakota, where tough working conditions and low pay made for poor employment, Norsk moved to Montevideo, MN, where he met his wife, Irene. Soon after they settled in Benson where he began to work for the bakery. Toby’s grandfather bought it from the original owner in 1932, his father took over in 1972, and he started managing in 1995, giving the bakery over 75 year of rich history in the same storefront in downtown Benson.

DSC_8726Toby buys his flour from two local mills: Dry Weather Creek in Milan, MN, about 30 miles away, and Nordman Farm’s in Hancock, MN, a mere 15 miles away. When his father owned the bakery, there were eight local flour mills that routinely sent salesman to his bakery. Then, his dad had a plethora of local flour to choose from and didn’t have to ship flour from half way across the country. “When you have local flour you have better control of it because you can talk to the grower and the miller and know if they’re using pesticides,” Toby explained. “That, and customers like it too.” In the last 10 years Toby has noticed a changing consciousness about local food and food safety in general, as many in the Benson community are concerned about the effects of pesticides in humans.

A bakery like Toby’s can be tailored to fit a community. A church group approached him about baking a flatbread. They gave him the recipe and he happily agreed. Now he makes it year-round and it is a consistent seller.  Many of the bakery’s recipes are from his father and his grandfather, and some are from the original owner, including the from-scratch angel food cake. Toby said not many people make angel food cakes from-scratch anymore. The basic white bread recipe has not changed in 70 years. Toby’s yellowing recipe book was propped open on a stand in the kitchen and was opened to Whole Wheat Muffins. Its typewriter text was full of penciled notes on quantity changes and berry additions, and dated by Toby’s father in 1975. Toby estimates that only five percent of the items produced in the bakery are not from scratch, but Toby struggles with these mixes as he does not have direct control over what goes into his bagels or croissants.

Toby gives much of the bakery’s success to the employees and the strong community they create in the bakery. “The DSC_8724people who work here have put their heart and soul and that’s where the strength of the bakery comes from,” he said. The employees bring their knowledge of the Benson community into a bakery rich with heritage, further connecting this historic storefront to the town around them.

To see more photos of Benson Bakery, please see our Flickr slideshow.


Larson’s Premium Sweet Corn

22 08 2009

by Emily Larson

DSC_8619“Did you leave Mary at home today?” the woman asked jovially as she walked up to the roadside corn stand. “Oh no, she’s working at school today,” Larry Larson explained with a smile. The woman asked for five ears of sweet corn, paused to think, then took ten instead. Larry and this customer chatted comfortably about the rapid close of summer and the upcoming school year before he turned to help another customer. In the shade of the white tent, Larry sat on gray plastic crates he used to bring in the freshest pick. His high school aged kids, both of whom have helped on the farm “since they were knee high to a grasshopper,” according to Larry, took a break from their afternoon sales in the back of the van labeled “Willmar Grown” Quality Vegetables.

The Larson Premium Sweet Corn Stand sits in a parking lot of a strip mall next to a mattress store on the main drag in Willmar, MN where they are deeply rooted in the community. Mary and Larry have been farming in Willmar for 25 years, and have occupied their roadside stand for the last 16. All the locals know where to find them– next to the Rainbow playground equipment and in front of the blow-up Serta sheep–and they know nothing beats the flavor, texture and freshness of Larson’s corn. “We’re known in the community as the place to get produce,” Larry said, and since it is picked each morning, it is hard to find anywhere fresher.

In addition to their work with the Farm to School program, the Larsons bring thousands of ears of corn toDSC_8591 the Kandiyohi County Fair, donate corn for the YMCA and Legion fundraisers, and last year they donated over ten thousand pounds of produce to the local food shelf. Most of the nursing homes in Willmar serve Larson corn to their residents every other week, and the residents enjoy the familiar feeling of shucking the corn themselves. “It makes for a good day for them,” Larry noted.

For the last five or six years, Larry has visited the elementary schools to show the students pictures of the farm and teach them about how food is grown. Three years ago, when Willmar started the Farm to School program, they approached Mary about being involved. Each year, the Larson’s bring close to one hundred dozen ears of corn to the school, pre-shucked. That means the whole family helps get 1,200 ears of corn ready to go to school. The schools also get squash from the Larsons and they may get tomatoes this year too. One challenge the schools face, as Larry illuminated, is that when all the local produce is in season, the schools aren’t.

Reflecting on the past few years, Larry guesses that the demand for local food in Willmar is five times higher than when they started farming. The cost of shipping food in from far away makes local food competitive, even at higher prices. But at the end of the day, “it is quality quality quality,” Larry said, which really makes the difference between sweet corn picked two weeks before, ten states away, and Larson sweet corn, picked fresh and delivered to hungry customers in a matter of minutes.

To view more photos of Larson’s Premium Sweetcorn, please see the Flickr slideshow.

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.