District touts farm-to-school program

Becca Carlson of Seeds Farm in Northfield talks about her involvement with Minneapolis Public Schools' farm-to-school program during a visit to Lyndale Community School on Wednesday.

Two local legislators joined Minneapolis Public Schools leaders at Lyndale Community School on Oct. 31 to learn more about the district’s farm-to-school program.

State Reps. Jim Davnie (DFL-Minneapolis) and Jenifer Loon (R-Eden Prairie) joined Superintendent Ed Graff and four board members for a lunch at the school. Also in attendance were members of the district’s Culinary & Wellness Services department and a member of U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s staff.

The lunch came at the end of National Farm to School Month, a month-long recognition of farm-to-school programs across the U.S. MPS has had its farm-to-school program since 2013, Farm to School Coordinator Kate Seybold said, noting that the district contracts with 13 small and midsize farms and farm co-operatives.

The program is a win for students, farmers and the community, Seybold said, noting that students get flavorful and healthy produce while farmers get the additional business. It also helps students and families learn about where their food comes from, Seybold said.

Farm-to-school programs can include everything from serving local foods in cafeterias to education activities related to agriculture, according to the National Farm to School Network. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2015 farm-to-school census, 42 percent of districts surveyed said they participate in farm-to-school activities, while another 16 percent said they planned to participate in the future.

The benefits of farm-to-school programming include higher rates of meal-program participation and fruit and vegetable consumption, according to research cited by the network. Students also perform better in school, have increased knowledge about gardening and agriculture and are more willing to try new and healthier food, the network says.

“We have so much evidence that students who know where their food comes from are more likely to eat it,” said Anna Mullen, communications manager for the network. “That connection is one that’s been proven really powerful for changing the way kids eat.”

MPS’ farm-to-school program includes serving locally sourced fruits, vegetables and meats, having farmers speak in classrooms and cafeterias and holding taste tests and special events such as Junior Iron Chef. The program also includes a monthly “Minnesota Thursdays” meal, during which the Culinary & Wellness Services department serves an entirely locally sourced meal. There are also garden-to-cafeteria programs at about eight schools.

One aim of the program is to expose students to new things so they can learn to think critically about their food, Seybold said. Another aim is to help them build the vocabulary to describe what they like and don’t like, she said.

“We really look at cafeterias as an educational space just like a classroom in that regard,” Seybold said.

The farm-to-school program is beneficial for farmers in addition to students, Seybold said. Farmers know that their investments will lead to sales, she said, and the district is able to use large produce items that sometimes don’t sell well.

Farmer Becca Carlson, owner of Seeds Farm in Northfield, sells romaine lettuce, cucumbers and delicata squash to the district. Carlson said her relationship with MPS has helped her transition her farm from a community-supported agriculture model to one that specializes in wholesale delivery.

She said it’s meaningful for her to see kids fueling their bodies with healthy foods and developing healthy eating habits.

The farm-to-school program is part of MPS’ “true food” philosophy of serving whole and fresh foods without artificial flavorings. In recent years, the Culinary & Wellness Services department has worked to add kitchens and salad bars across the district. Just over half of the district’s schools have kitchens, Seybold said, adding that the pre-packed meals served at other schools have the same integrity as ones cooked in a school kitchen.

Mark Stauduhar, principal at Lyndale Community School, said students at Lyndale have been exposed to a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and dishes that might not have been possible without a full-service kitchen. He noted the students get a chance to meet new people who are trying to promote health, nutrition and health, which they enjoy.