In the month of October, Minnesotans are encouraged to celebrate connections between students and local food in their communities.

As students across the state participate in a variety of in-person, distance learning and hybrid school settings, school nutrition professionals continue to provide students with fresh, nutritious food while supporting Minnesota farmers, which lifts the local economy, according to a state press release.

Farm to School ideas started sprouting on the national level over 20 years ago. Groups shared common values of supporting community-based food systems, strengthening family farms and improving student health. Congress officially recognized October as National Farm to School Month in 2010. The following year, Minnesota’s Farm to School Leadership Team was established.

This year, Gov. Tim Walz proclaimed October as Minnesota Farm to School Month. What this initiative means in practice varies within each community.

Janeen Peterson, director of Food and Nutrition Services for Alexandria Public Schools, said being a larger rural school district often makes it more difficult to obtain local products.

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She said the closest distribution center where farmers bring their produce for schools to utilize is in Little Falls.

Instead, staff members from the Alexandria school district reach out and make connections with individual farmers through research and word of mouth, seeking out farms large enough to feed about 4,300 students that come through Alexandria school doors daily.

Peterson said smaller farmers look at her with wide eyes when she asks them, “Hey, can you supply us with products?”

Finding local partners

In the last few years, Peterson said the program has been built up to include a handful of Minnesota farmers.

Ferndale Market in Cannon Falls provides vegetarian-fed turkey. Dave Lodemeier, a bee farmer from St. Joseph, gives the schools honey. All the milk Alexandria students receive is from local dairy farmers.

Peterson said she is also working on a future egg partnership with Rockin’ h Farm in Alexandria. The Alexandria high school garden took this year off, but Peterson said they plan to start it up again next year.

Another source of local food is Country Blossom Farm, which provides the schools with apples, squash, beets and kohlrabi, a type of cabbage.

“The Farm to School program allows us to teach the kids about how important it is to support local farmers,” Peterson said. “It teaches them a little bit more about the farm because we’re able to make those connections with somebody they might even know or go to school with.”

Peterson used Country Blossom Farm as an example of this. Troy and Tracy Heald’s children go to Alexandria schools, so the food they eat in the lunch line includes some of the produce from their family farm.

All public schools have commodity dollars to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables from the Department of Defense, so Peterson said the school tries to get as many locally sourced items as possible based on a list of available products each week. Sysco is the school’s main distributor, and they also promote local products at certain times of the year.

Getting the kids involved

Another connection Peterson discussed involved Morgan Olson, a science teacher at Discovery Middle School who also serves as the garden manager at Woodland Elementary.

Olson presented an annual review of the community education garden at the Sept. 28 Alexandria School Board meeting. He related this year’s garden to an analogy of two carrots. A typical summer of running the school garden would look like a straight baby carrot, but this year took a few twists and turns, which contorted the carrot into an unusual direction.

The DMS Green Team, Master Gardeners and a 4-H intern normally assist with the gardening, but none of those groups were able to participate this year because of COVID-19.

Instead, Community Education Director Lynn Jenc helped Olson gather a team of people from the school to help during the summer.

Olson focused on a few key crops and ended up with more than 100 pounds of zucchini and 300 pounds of potatoes.

Second and third grade students in the community education’s summer Compass program did a lot more of the gardening than in typical years, allowing Olson to teach them during the hands-on process. Kids helped with daily harvesting and had the opportunity to take home their own snacks, such as lunchbox peppers, cherry tomatoes and green beans.

“We had a lot of unexpected positives this year,” Olson said at the meeting. “When we have to think down a new pathway, we don’t always know what’s coming, but I was really happy with how it turned out.”

On a rainy day, the kids even wrote thank you notes to local farmers, which Olson delivered at the farmer’s market.

“I was really just happy to come back together with students and staff as part of a physical learning environment, so it was really a rewarding summer,” Olson said.

Morgan Olson, Discovery Middle School science teacher and Woodland Elementary School garden manager, stood next to students from the community education’s summer Compass program as they dug up potatoes from the school garden. (Contributed)
Morgan Olson, Discovery Middle School science teacher and Woodland Elementary School garden manager, stood next to students from the community education’s summer Compass program as they dug up potatoes from the school garden. (Contributed)

Working through challenges

Peterson said that emphasizing local food sources also comes with a few obstacles.

Since Minnesota’s primary growing season is in the summer months when school isn’t in session, Peterson said they really try to hit September and October.

“We’re not like California,” Peterson said. “We can’t get this stuff all year round in great abundance.”

Another challenge Peterson mentioned is the cost.

“You would think since the food doesn’t have to travel across many different states that it would be cheaper,” she said. “Usually, it’s more expensive to purchase locally.”

This Farm to School Month, Peterson wants the community to know that by partnering locally, the school district is able to support farmers in the community, create connections, provide fresher produce for Alexandria area students and educate children about the origin of their food. Any local farmers looking to partner with the school district may reach out to Peterson.

“It’s just a really good program for everybody,” she said. “To be able to support our community is a huge benefit.”