The Minnesota Department of Agriculture is seeking to bring more Minnesota-produced fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy into the state’s schools with the help of a grant program that helps schools outfit their kitchens.
Schools and educational organizations have until Nov. 7 to apply for the Agricultural Growth, Research and Innovation (AGRI) Farm to School and Farm to Early Care and Education grants, which will provide a combined $374,000 for equipment or the development of new food programs for students. Individual schools and groups can win up to $50,000 for equipment and up to $30,000 for project planning.
Now in its eighth year, the grant program has helped schools around the state transform their kitchens, following a nationwide trend of schools moving away from serving packaged, processed food and bringing back homestyle cooking and local foods. Ashley Bress, grants supervisor for the Department of Agriculture, said the program has provided significant help to schools — but just as much of a benefit to farmers.
“Our goal is really to increase marketability and profitability for farmers,” she said. “Our hope is that when we are able to invest in a school so they can purchase the equipment they need to purchase local fruits, vegetables, meat products and dairy, they’re able to purchase more [from local producers].”
For many districts, making the shift is no easy feat. Over the past several decades, many school cafeterias became places where packaged food was heated and plated — with hardly any on-site cooking. And some older school buildings, designed when many students walked home for lunch, lacked the space or equipment to store and cook fresh foods.
As a result, districts that want to provide more local, fresh and healthy ingredients and meals for their students have had to make big investments. Recent recipients of the state grant included Alexandria Public Schools, which used the money for a walk-in freezer, cooler, utility carts and storage racks; Jackson County Central School District, which bought a vegetable steamer; and Roseville Area Schools, which spent the money on double-decker ovens and food processors.
A few years ago, Bress said, the Waconia school district bought a pasta machine that allowed the school’s cooks to make fresh pasta out of locally grown grains.
Minneapolis Public Schools, which launched a yearslong effort to bring local and fresh food to its more than 70 school buildings, will start the new school year with an important kitchen tool funded by the grant: a peeler, scrubber and washer for root vegetables.
Julie Danzl, wellness manager in the district’s culinary and wellness services department, said the new equipment will come in handy as the district hits a major milestone: more than half of its schools have transformed their kitchens to facilitate on-site cooking. The peeler-scrubber-washer will allow the district to clean and process produce on site instead of having to pay someone else to do it, allowing the district to have more control over its purchases and menus.
“This year, we expect to see an increase in the volume and variety of vegetables [we serve],” she said.
Public and private schools are eligible to apply for the grants, as long as they participate in the National School Lunch Program. The grants cover 50% of schools’ projects; the school or district must come up with the rest of the money. Grants for planning projects cover 75% of the total cost.