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Schools work to bring local food to the cafeteria

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When the Shakopee public schools decided to serve Minnesota-grown pickled beets to some of their 6,500 students, kids needed what food service director Debbie Ross called a little incentive from the school cook.

"She bribed the kids with a pencil to take some of the beets," Ross said. "Some of the kids took them and ran right to the garbage, but they did, they tried the beets."

Getting kids to try beets is just one example of how a growing number of school food service directors in Minnesota say they want to expose their students to more fruits and vegetables, particularly those grown locally.

By one estimate, some 100 school districts in the state have at least a small formal farm-to-school program.

Food service directors say the programs will improve students' health and might lead to better success at school.

Congress has passed a child nutrition bill to provide $40 million for farm-to-school programs that could bring more vegetables, fruits and even meat onto cafeteria trays. And on Thursday, the University Extension Service sponsored a workshop at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum for both food service directors and farmers.

The first step can be easy, said the extension service's farm-to-school coordinator, Stephanie Heim.

"A lot of people start with the low hanging fruit, the apple," she said. "It's easy to serve, it can be washed and put on the tray. And a lot of farmers have trouble getting rid of those smaller apples at the farmers market or on the wholesale market.

"But they fit right into the school lunch."

But after that things can get complicated.

For one thing, schools find prices tend to be higher for locally grown food.  The Hopkins school district uses thousands of pounds of fresh produce every year -- potatoes, green beans, even mustard greens.

Hopkins food service director Barb Mechura says cucumbers are nearly 3 times as expensive from Delano's Riverbend Farms as when she buys from her normal distributor. The school system adjusted by cutting back on main course portions that were too large for the younger kids.

That, she said, helped both with the budget and with getting kids to focus on fruits and vegetables.

Hopkins lunches cost almost a dollar more for high school students than Shakopee charges.

Greg Reynolds of Riverbend Farm says when schools can afford the price farmers need, even more will  participate. 

But before schools can buy local, they have to solve another problem as well.

Many need to reinvent school kitchens to focus on cooking food, not just reheating processed foods.  Ross, in Shakopee, said re-training cooks just to chop hundreds of pounds of vegetables efficiently is going to take some time.

"School lunch cooks are moms," she said. "They don't really have degrees in food service or anything like that.  So they need to be taught how to do culinary skills. They need to learn to cook with whole grains, and how to cut up the produce and how to cut up the carrots. And there are knife skills and more efficient ways and they need to be trained to do that."

Once the food is prepared, the challenge is still getting kids to eat their vegetables.

Hopkins' Barb Mechura uses food coaches, volunteers and staff who remind kids to try everything on their plate.  Mechura says school lunch periods can be hectic and it's hard for kids to focus. While kids do seem to respond to local fare, too much food still ends up in the garbage, she said.   "We can put all the money we want behind buying the food, but if it's not getting into their tummies, it's not doing any good."