I had long wanted to attend a Slow Foods MN event for their fascinating topics and delectable food, and last month I got my chance. Dina Berray and Jane Rosemarin put together an event at Eisenhower Elementary last Sunday for a conversation about Farm to School in Hopkins. Barb Mechura, Director of Nutrition Services of the Hopkins School District, Greg Reynolds of Riverbend Farm, and about twenty-five people of all ages gathered in the beautiful Wetlands Café to discuss how food from local farmers gets into a school cafeteria.
Barb and Greg sat against the backdrop of Eisenhower Elementary’s back yard. “Greg and I like to shoot from the hip,” Barb smiled before she started the informal discussion.
School food cycle
Barb described how in her twenty years of student meal program experience, she has seen meal preparation shift from cooking from scratch to heat and serve and back again. When she started in 1988, commodity food came in raw form: whole chickens, blocks of cheese, bags of raw carrots, etc. In the 90’s, several forces changed the nature of school lunches.
First, students began to prefer convenience foods, thanks to the growing prevalence of fast food outlets and the decline in home-cooking. Second, contract management became more popular. Schools turned over their cafeterias to businesses that could guarantee high participation rates. Third, food manufacturers began to step into the commodity market and process those whole chickens, blocks of cheese, and raw carrots.
Finally, the labor market changed. People who wanted to work in kitchens were in short supply. Meal preparation moved away from cutting up chicken and peeling carrots toward reheating chicken tenders and opening bags of baby carrots.
Many schools, however, are moving back to from-scratch cooking. Approximately fifty percent of meals prepared at the Hopkins School District’s six elementary and two junior high schools are from scratch, and the figure stands at a whopping 95% at the high school (check out their menu here). And farmers like Greg Reynolds are helping to bring local foods into the kitchen.
Riverbend Farm and Hopkins
Greg farms thirty certified organic acres in Delano, MN and employees young people like my friends Ranelle and Brandon. Half of Greg’s business is with local (within 50 miles), chef-driven restaurants like Alma and Common Roots Café, where my sister took me for a delicious birthday lunch.
Last winter, Renewing the Countryside, a nonprofit organization dedicated to championing rural communities, held a farmer-chef networking event. Greg had been to several of these events before and knew almost everyone, but a friend who knew that Barb was going to be there persuaded him to come. They met and began working together right away to address Hopkins’ needs.
One of the first challenges was furnishing a potato to meet the school lunch guidelines’ 6-oz. portion size. Greg talked Barb into buying two 3-oz potatoes instead. His workers spent days sorting and weighing potatoes, sitting with the “ideal” potato in front of them as a guide. “They hated it!” he said. He ended up delivering potatoes between 2 ½ and 3 ½ ounces.
The two-potato delivery and variation in size had serendipitous results. First, the two smaller potatoes were not as overwhelmingly large to the younger kids as a 6-oz potato. Also, those with smaller appetites could take potatoes sized to match, wasting less and leaving the larger potatoes to older, hungrier students.
Creating an accommodating environment
Challenges face a school food service director from all sides, from cramped, underequipped kitchens to tight budgets. After going to the trouble of preparing food from scratch, the critical next step is getting kids to eat what’s on their tray. Hopkins implemented two strategies targeting elementary students to increase food consumption and decrease waste – recess before lunch and food coaching.
This year, five Hopkins’ elementary schools will have recess before lunch, rather than after. Students have the opportunity to get all their wiggles out from sitting in classes all morning before they sit down (again) to a meal. And running around outside whets their appetites for a Rachel Wrap and Godzilla Green Beans (creative names for vegetable and fruit sides are another strategy - see more here).
Food coaching addresses the issue of attention span at another level. Parents volunteer as “food coaches” during lunch to encourage kids to take another bite of peaches, help open their milk cartons, and generally remind them that they are there to eat. “Think of meals at the holidays, with all the people and excitement,” Barb said. “It’s like that every day here.”
Local foods to finish
Once Barb and Greg finished outlining the Farm to School program at Hopkins, discussion ranged from the complaints received from parents about menu changes to Greg’s root cellar (under construction) to the billions of dollars spent on advertising aimed squarely at kids, the food that students from Le Cordon Bleu had been grilling was ready (such as peppers, eggplant, and morel mushrooms).
Since Slow Foods MN’s mission includes advocating for farmers who grow and market wholesome food, as well as celebrating food as a cornerstone of pleasure, culture and community, after wrapping up our discussion, we adjourned for a potluck.
Tables groaned with SunShine Harvest Farm Italian sausages and bacon burgers served with grilled peppers. Attendees brought sides and desserts ranging from Snappy Crunchy Coleslaw and gardened cucumber salad to gluten-free carrot cake with goat-cream-cheese frosting and a geranium-scented pound cake. See slowfoodmn.org for their always-delicious, ever-informative upcoming events.
Photos from Kim Mechura.