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School lunch fresh from farm

By Sarah Lemagie | Star Tribune

Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

Second-grader Bee Thomas got a scoop of turkey and gravy on her mashed potatoes for lunch at Highland Elementary School in Apple Valley. School cafeterias were serving Minnesota squash and turkey as part the district’s “Farm to School” initiative.

The butternut squash that students at Highland Elementary in Apple Valley ate for lunch one day last week looked delicious: steaming hot, sweetened with sugar and cinnamon, drizzled with butter.

It was also grown in Minnesota, much to the satisfaction of food service employees who planned the meal months in advance.

Even in farm country, getting local foods on the menu can be surprisingly complicated for school districts that serve thousands of hot lunches every day. That isn't stopping the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district, which has joined schools across the state in a push to serve more food from Minnesota growers.

They're starting small. This year, the district has aimed to serve local food at least once a month as part of its "Farm to School" program. This fall, students have nibbled on fresh corn, Honeycrisp apples and hotdogs from a local cattle farm. Minnesota-produced cheese and wild rice could be on the menu in coming months.

The goals: to support local farmers, teach kids where their food comes from and get them to try healthful new recipes.

Last week, school cooks in the district set up display tables with whole butternut, acorn and spaghetti squashes for kids to check out.

"Wow, those are some big pumpkins!" said kindergartner Lexi Beck when she saw the table at Highland.

"Those are squash, sweetie," said Susan Ambrus, the school's food service manager.

Getting local food in school cafeterias can be challenging, especially for a district as big as Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan. The district has about 27,500 students, which translates into 15,000 hotdogs or 13,300 ears of corn served on a single day.

Some Minnesota districts are able to buy certain foods directly from growers. More work with large-scale food distributors to buy local products. Some distributors say they've been working with Minnesota farmers for years, but are getting more pressure from schools to provide locally produced food.

Buying direct from local farmers can be tricky, partly because the orders are large, but also because raw food often needs extra preparation that school kitchens can't handle.

When the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district decided to put squash on the menu, it worked with its primary food vendor to find a subcontractor that could do the peeling and dicing. "We don't have the labor or the time to cut thousands and thousands of fresh ... squash," said Barb Griffiths, a food and nutrition supervisor for the district.

Local food can also be more expensive. When the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district served fresh corn on the cob in September, for example, it cost about 30 percent more than frozen corn. Grass-fed beef hotdogs from Cannon Falls, offered in October, cost almost twice as much as regular dogs.

But the expense is worth it, partly because serving local food is a good way to teach kids where their meals come from, said Wendy Knight, the district's coordinator of food and nutrition services.

For Knight, the disconnect between modern kids and farms was illustrated last month by a small boy who drew a picture of the grass-fed beef hotdogs.

"He drew a picture of a hotdog eating grass," she said.

Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016

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