Farms, Foraging and Freezing: Farm to School Innovations in Western Minnesota
What do you do if your Farm to School program yields more cabbage, squash, peppers and zucchini than you know what to do with? Well, if you are Jeanine Bowman, Foodservice Director of the Benson and Morris Area Public Schools, you freeze them. With the help of some basic equipment and a very enthusiastic staff, Bowman has used freezing to extend Farm to School well into the winter months. Bowman’s staff uses as much produce as possible fresh, and then freezes the rest. Things have gone so well that the crew plans to add beans, okra, tomatoes and rhubarb to their repertoire of frozen products for the upcoming school year.
Bowman says that The Farm to School program has really been a “learn as you go” process, one that has been both enjoyable and successful. Since beginning the program three years ago, Bowman, her staff, and the Benson and Morris communities have come together to ramp up their Farm to School programs. Their efforts have since blossomed into a unique and creative local food movement. Both school districts are located about 120 miles west of the Twin Cities and feature Farm to School items on their menu at least once per week or more as product is available.
One of the most popular items are the “prairie dogs” that are purchased from a farm just north of Benson, Prairie Horizons farm. These hot dogs are made from entirely grass-fed Angus cattle and have been such a hit that they are now the only hot dogs served at the Benson and Morris schools.
Another prominent feature of Benson’s Farm to School program is their “Greenhouse Connections” initiative, a partnership with master gardeners and a nearby florist who has extra greenhouse space. Mustard greens and arugula grown through the initiative are included in Benson’s daily salad bar. Bowman says they received their first greens this past January and after some initial reservations, students responded to them quite well.
Just recently, Bowman has amped up efforts to increase student participation in Farm to School by giving students the opportunity to help shape the program’s future. In Morris, for example, Family and Consumer Science students assist with Farm to School recipe development. In Morris, foodservice staff have teamed up with the Agriculture Greenhouse Management class, which is teaching students to make connections with local growers. Students start by identifying the local farm products they would like to see in the lunchroom. From there, they seek out local producers and talk with them about their products and the producers’ interest in selling to the schools.
This foray into “foraging” is mutually beneficial as students gain hands-on business experience and learn about the local food system, and new relationships are created between the schools and nearby farmers. Bowman says the students have been very creative as they think about Farm to School’s future and are seeking out locally produced foods. So far the foraging class has already found elk, sweet corn, and rhubarb for next year.
When asked about the time commitment of running such an active Farm to School program, Bowman says that once you have formed relationships with the growers, it just becomes a normal part of the job. And in Bowman’s opinion, making those connections is the most important and fruitful aspect of Farm to School. “These foods are produced by somebody’s parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, or neighbors. The kids see that relationship and form a connection with their food. Then they tend to eat better.”