Farm-to-school food: Beyond apples to grass-fed hot dogs

Every year, the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy surveys Minnesota schools to measure how much local food schools are providing to students.

The numbers are out again and they’re up again.

First of all, in 2011, 145 of the state’s 333 districts offer at least some food from local farms in their lunch programs. That’s up 18 percent from a year earlier and represents districts enrolling two-thirds of the state’s students. The total value of local food in schools in 2011 was $1.3 million, double from a year earlier.

But the most interesting part of IATP’s report shows the breadth of products offered in schools increasing. More than 10 districts used 27 different local food items.

Apples are the gateway fruit that lots of districts start with, said Joanne Berkenkamp, IATP’s local foods program director. But more schools are moving beyond fruits and vegetables to grains and even proteins.

Providers like Thousand Hills Cattle Co. in Cannon Falls, which markets gourmet steaks in upscale grocery stores like Kowalski’s Markets, are finding schools a good outlet for cheaper meat cuts they have in excess, Berkenkamp said.

In the Hopkins School District, food service director Barb Mechura said the lunch program dropped hot dogs a few years ago out of concern over nitrates in the meat. The availability of Thousand Hills’ grass-fed hot dogs let them to re-introduce the popular item and, especially after cooks learned to deal with their tendency to dry out more, students love them, Mechura said.

Another trend the latest survey found was an increasing number of relationships between schools and farms. Mechura backed that up, too. She said she likes to deal with local producers. “It’s become quite normal.”

You can find background on the farm-to-school effort and local foods more generally on this Ground Level page.

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