It wouldn't seem hard to get fresh Minnesota corn on the cob into a school cafeteria. Yet it took federal grants, a group of concerned lunch ladies and some people who call themselves "foragers" to deliver sweet corn this Friday to students at dozens of schools statewide for the first time in recent memory.
It amounts to a proud moment for the state's school cooks association, which this year picked up the local-foods banner in the hopes of rewriting the way they buy and prepare lunches for the state's 840,000 public school students. And it could change decades-old business practices for schools and other institutional food service programs.
"This is our big kickoff year for this," said Lyn Halvorson, director of the school lunch program at Winona Public Schools.
The day of the corncob will be followed, at some schools, with occasional servings of local foods like bison, beets, honey or cheese. Some schools will grind their own whole grains. Wayzata students will see local items on their menu marked with a carrot. Students in Willmar, if they're among the early arrivals at the high school cafeteria, will find limited supplies of salad greens grown year-round at a local greenhouse.
Caught up in the foodie movement, school lunch programs across the state this year will scramble to find more local food as the school cooks' association rolls out its plans to join "Farm to School" plans springing up elsewhere.
The movement challenges historical business practices that put a priority on price over growing region. There's plenty of passion behind the efforts, with a website and a chorus of parents and school cooks saying it's good for the kids. But not all of it is new, said a longtime Minnesota food distributor.
"It's just an awareness that's been created," said Duane Pflieger, of Bix Produce Co., a St. Paul produce distributor. Bix has worked with local farmers for 70 years, he added, but as the eat-local movement grows, more schools are asking for locally grown products. "There's a big push within the districts to force the distribution networks into doing this for them," Pflieger said.
It's a strange problem, in some ways, as schools in farm country struggle to find local food.
"When I first moved here it was easier to get local products in the Twin Cities than it was being in the middle of farm country," said Lynn Mader, a University of Minnesota extension employee who's worked with Willmar schools for the past several years.
The Willmar district was an early adopter of farm-to-school purchasing, beginning five years ago, and its early lessons formed the basis for a website that Mader helped create, www.mn-farm toschool.umn.edu.
"Part of the challenge is how do you weave local foods throughout the menu throughout the school year?" said Joanne Berkenkamp, an economist at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) who has worked with school lunch programs around the state.
Some of the local food comes from side deals the schools have inked with farmers. More of it comes from traditional distributors like Bix, which have made up lists of locally produced food for their institutional customers to choose from. Pflieger said he's working with farmers as much as he can, but smaller producers can't deliver to him directly.
"We're a 80,000-square-foot building and we receive 30 trucks a day. We can't have farmers dropping in with five boxes of this, five boxes of that," he said. Yet he doesn't want to lose their business either, hinting that farmers who sell directly to schools could fall out of his distribution network.
It's not possible for some schools to simply buy direct from the farmer, because raw foods often need to be peeled or chopped, adding an unworkable burden to cafeteria staff hurrying to serve hundreds or even thousands of children a day.
Food processors to help them "slice and dice" are on many school cafeteria staff's wish lists, said Halvorson, of Winona.
Her own search for local foods started with a "speed dating" event two years ago meant to pair up buyers with farmers in southeastern Minnesota.
"I said we're the biggest restaurant in the community. After that I kind of waited for my phone to ring. It didn't," Halvorson said.
Serving 3,800 students was too daunting for some farms. The school's budget was too tight to afford the lamb meat or goat's milk offered by some farms. Eventually she found an apple grower willing to sell to the schools. Now she includes bison as well, and hopes to find more food this year with the help of two "foragers," college students who will scout farms in the area. Despite her efforts, she says she still has the blessings of her main food distributor, Reinhart, in La Crosse, Wis. "They've been on board with us all along," Halvorson said.
It's not as easy as heading over to the farmer's market, said Jean Ronnei, who runs the St. Paul school district's lunch program.
"The farmers were not familiar with that business model of growing to contract, so the produce was not planted for us," Ronnei said.
Now, after talking to farmers about what will be on hand during the school year, Ronnei has planned the school menu around the list, finding about 10 things she plans to use with the help of her food distributors who made arrangements directly with the farmers.
The changes will mean more cabbage and less California-grown romaine lettuce and spinach, more locally processed carrot coins or chunks instead of California-grown baby carrots. And cantaloupe will replace some canned fruit.
The school has begun looking beyond the cafeteria for help, turning to the USDA's commodity program. The federal government typically provides schools with free credit to buy USDA-approved commodities like cheese, hamburger, tortillas, canned fruit and vegetables. Ronnei said she'd like the commodities program to include local or regionally grown vegetables.
"What's exciting about it, too, is you get a St. Paul or Winona district doing this, it becomes easier and the processors and farmers see the advantage," she said.
Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329