Farmers, students benefiting from expanding Farm to School food program

Students in Minnesota schools are getting a much different food experience lately, thanks to an expanding Farm to School program.

Thursday's holiday lunch at Hutchinson High School is a great example, with local farms providing all five food groups.

The setting may look the same, but this isn’t your grandmother’s school cafeteria, or even yours. The difference is noticeable as soon as you walk in, especially to a former student and farmer.

"The smell of the cafeteria these days is actually like fresh baked French toast with cinnamon and nutmeg and local apples," said Aimee Haag, Farm to School coordinator for Hutchinson, Litchfield, and Dassel-Cokato schools. "It smells like home."

Wholesome meals started coming out of the ovens at Hutchinson, Litchfield, and Dassel-Cokato schools a few years ago when they embraced the Farm to School idea.

"We wanted to get away from some of the processed foods that the kids were eating," said Lesli Mueller, the child nutrition director for the school districts.

They now buy local foods from more than a dozen farms and ranches, mostly within a 20-mile radius of the schools.

The chicken served Thursday came from Fowl Mouth Farms, which is less than eight miles away from the high school -- owned by the Wanous family, which has children in the Hutchinson district.

"It's amazing," said Rachel Wanous of her family's turkeys after Hutchinson's chef cooked them rotisserie style. "They look fantastic."

They tasted great, too, according to the students, which is big news for Fowl Mouth.

Rachel Wanous says her family’s business started out producing around 75 birds a couple of years ago. This year, the schools ordered about 400, and the family is cooking up expansion plans.

"How many more chicken tractors do we need?" Wanous said. "How much more grass? How many chickens can we actually run on the amount of grass that we have at home for them? So we've already got ideas in the works for hopefully making it bigger."

This lunch also included local butternut squash, apples and milk. Not all 6,300 students in the three districts always get the same meal options, but having a customer base that size can help small farms with planning.

"If a farmer knows we need 3,000 pounds of carrots and we're upfront about that, they can make the investments on their farm to get the equipment that's going to make that not easy, but easier and maybe more cost effective on the labor side," Haag said.

School chefs have learned to be more flexible with meal planning as farmers deliver carrots, cucumbers, and tomatoes on their own harvest timelines.

But they believe fresher foods have better flavor, which might convince kids to eat fruits and vegetables they otherwise wouldn’t. And they can store local beef, syrup, and dry beans for longer.

By the last Farm to School census in 2019, Minnesota schools had already spent 16% of their food budgets on local products and that number is rising fast. These districts alone have spent $630,000 locally since 2020.

The USDA estimates every $1 spent on Farm to School generates $2.16 of local economic activity, so the benefits extend beyond the lunchroom.

"How far can we go with this?" Mueller said. "Can we make it all whole, local food? That would be wonderful."

That won't happen quickly, but it's the dream scenario for everyone involved.