Farm-to-school food: Who’s going to chop the rutabagas?

A vegetable grower near Litchfield telephoned Annette Hendrickx Derouin this week to ask her if she wanted some fresh potatoes, carrots and rutabagas.

Since Derouin runs the food and nutrition services for Willmar’s public schools in central Minnesota and since she is a relentless proponent of getting local food into school lunchrooms, the call might have made her day.

It didn’t. The program she runs doesn’t have the wherewithal to chop or otherwise process the vegetables before serving them to students. She called for help from St. Paul schools, which runs a large farm-to-school project, only to learn that the food processor they use isn’t an option for outstate Minnesota. So she had to pass.

“There’s no way I can cut enough rutabaga sticks for 1,800 kids,” she says.

Derouin mentioned the incident Wednesday morning at a forum put on by the Minnesota Food and Nutrition Network, illustrating one of the obstacles to expanding a growing effort in the state to get local food into schools.

Willmar is one of four schools to receive a $15,000 legislative appropriation to expand the farm-to-school idea in the state. Three of the four essentially reported in Wednesday (Moorhead, where orchards have been planted on school grounds, couldn’t make it because of the weather.)

In Minneapolis, the Nawayee Center School on Bloomington Avenue, which serves a heavily Native American student body, the money resulted in turning a pollution-laden empty lot into a set of raised garden beds. Students tend, harvest and then eat and preserve the produce. Next steps include growing tomatoes hydroponically.

At Pine Point on the White Earth Indian Reservation, students mark monthly themes to focus on locally grown food — the “three sisters” of corn, beans and squash one month, wild rice another, fish another.

In Willmar, Derouin has for several years been introducing a great variety of food produced in the area — apples, sweet corn, cheese, honey and more — to students.

Some of the value, of course, is in the local economy, but the school folks all stressed the cultural connection students are making to the land and food around them. And they say more kids eat lunch when those connections are made.

When I asked Derouin about obstacles to expansion, she mentioned price (local growers’ prices often are higher than schools’ normal sources) and the time it can take to find new growers to fill the demand (the school’s supplier of bison hot dogs almost ran out last year). Then she mentioned the call this week as a big one, the inability to process food that is available.

Maybe she can use the potatoes whole in a baked potato bar, she allowed. But carrots and rutabagas, she can’t deal with.

“I just don’t have hours of labor to process food.”

University of Minnesota Extension and a number of organizations — state, local, non-profit — are working on farm-to-school efforts around Minnesota, and the conversations about them are growing. (Find out more here.) And you can imagine possible solutions to Derouin’s problem this week — money for schools to add labor costs, for example, or coordination of districts to create a big enough market for a private processor.

It’s not clear where the Legislature being elected Tuesday might want to take the effort beyond the four pilot schools, but if it wants to do something more, a good step might be to address the rutabaga chopping question.