It started with apples.
In 2008, Owatonna Public Schools began purchasing apples from a local orchard. Then the district began buying other local produce through its food distributor.
“Healthier school lunch options are essential for proper growth and development of our students,” says dietitian Rachel Valesano, director of Food and Nutrition Services for Owatonna Public Schools. “We prepare students for learning each day by way of both breakfast and lunch.
“Connecting with local producers is an important aspect of providing healthier food.”
After finding success with produce, the Owatonna school district was interested in sourcing more local products for the school menu and began looking for proteins. In 2010, the school system formed a partnership with John Peterson and Ferndale Farms in Cannon Falls to provide turkey for some recipes.
“As a farmer and a parent, the quality of the food we’re feeding students is so important,” says Peterson, whose third-generation family turkey farm raises free-range poultry. “We all know food is the fuel for our brain, so it’s vital that we use good fuel during the school day.”
A Growing Partnership
In order to bring in local meat products, the school system needed to expand its cooler and freezer space.
“A farm-to-school grant opportunity through the Minnesota Department of Agriculture provided funds that allowed us to replace and expand a walk-in cooler and freezer at one of our school sites that tripled the size,” Valesano says.
“We went from being able to feature Ferndale turkey products approximately once a month to once a week. We now are using more of their ground turkey and have started purchasing their turkey roasts and turkey hot dogs.”
Today, Ferndale Farms works with nearly a dozen school districts, including Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools, as well as the Cannon Falls school district, to provide local turkey products.
The additional space provided by the new freezer allowed the district to increase not only the amount of locally raised meats it could purchase, but also increase its produce capacity. Today, the schools’ apples come from Johnson’s Oakside Orchard in Ellendale, and other produce comes from Upper Lakes Foods and Bergin Fruit and Nut Co.
“Increasing local foods is not only beneficial to the students in our district, but also to the economic development of our state and community. It creates new opportunities for Minnesota farmers,” Valesano says.
It’s also an added bonus that the students are enjoying the healthier lunches, and parents appreciate the variety of fresh produce and local meats being incorporated.
“We are passionate about increasing both our students’ and our communities’ knowledge about – and attitudes toward – food, nutrition, agriculture and the environment,” Valesano says. “I think, most importantly, these partnerships give us the opportunity to help teach our kids where food comes from.”
Preparing Future Farmers
Valesano says she hopes these partnerships with local producers and school districts continue to expand across the state in order to further the knowledge of food and its origin. This is achievable through the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s School Gardening Guide.
This 260-page guide contains plant science-based lessons that encourage experiential learning through school gardens. This guide also encourages partnerships between school districts and local producers.
“In addition to the health component, it’s important for students, particularly those in urban districts, to have a chance to meet a farmer,” Peterson says. “Likewise, it’s unique in agriculture today for farmers to meet the people that eat the products we put so much work and energy into growing. The connection between farmer, community and student is the real benefit of the farm to school program.”