School freezer may be next stop for local food movement
In the school cafeteria at Sibley East, Joan Budahn stocks the food line with the makings for Mexican haystacks, a kid-friendly version of taco salad. Ground beef, corn chips and beans are piled neatly inside silver trays. Budahn, in a server's smock and black and gold Sibley East Wolverines visor, lifts the lid on a container and announces, "brown rice," emphasis on brown.
"I run this like I run my home," said Budahn, the school's head cook, who has worked here for 31 years.
Budahn and the three other women who staff the kitchen here spent a good part of last summer chopping, pickling and freezing vegetables from the school's two-acre farm plot, which is tended by students.
They processed pumpkins, squash and green beans. They sliced 1,000 pounds of cucumbers, shredded 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of cabbage and blanched and froze 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of tomatoes, which arrived in tubs and the backs of pickup trucks.
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"When you see that many at one time, you want to cringe," Budahn said. "But you go ahead and pretty soon you are done."
It was hot, labor-intensive work, but preserving all that food meant Sibley East, an elementary and high school, could serve locally grown produce well into the winter and spring.
Today, in early April, on the lunchroom tables sit bowls of bright red salsa, made from frozen, student-raised tomatoes, onions and peppers.
"We are almost to the end of the frozen," said Budahn.
Nearly half of Minnesota's school districts use at least some local food in their cafeterias, but the farm-to-school program at Sibley East, begun in 2010, is one of the state's largest and is considered a leader when it comes to preserving and freezing.
The effort shows one potential solution to the larger conundrum local food advocates have been grappling with for decades -- how to deal with a short growing season that doesn't match the extended period of demand. In a state where so much of the year is inhospitable to crops, it's been a challenge to figure out how to sell and serve local foods in the winter and early spring.
GROWING EMPHASIS ON LOCAL FOOD
Extending the local foods season has become a preoccupation among farmers and food advocates. Demand has increased among large institutions like schools -- which must meet new lunchroom guidelines requiring additional red, orange and dark green vegetables -- and hospitals.
Lakewood Health System in Staples serves local offerings in its cafeteria and hosts a parking lot farmers market. Duluth-based Essentia Health recently promised to buy 20 percent the food used in its Twin Ports facilities from local sources by 2020.
Filling promises like these in winter will require new systems, since potatoes, maple syrup, and wild rice will only get one so far.
"Consumers are trying to find ways to eat local all year round," said JoAnne Berkenkamp, local foods program director for the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. "And on the farm side, growers who grow and sell for the fresh market have a very brief window and that is not good for them. This is about making the farm system a bit more resilient.
"The food system has not yet figured out how to meet the demand that now exists," she said. "The demand has been cultivated for 15 years and we need the supply to meet it. That is what got us to this question."
Berkenkamp co-authored a report last December called, "Frozen Local: Strategies for Freezing Locally Grown Produce for the K-12 Marketplace." With the help of staff at Winona Area Public Schools, the report found that freezing locally grown vegetables in a cafeteria kitchen can save significant money if the produce is donated or grown on site, even when cooks are paid to process it. It's less economical if the produce must be purchased.
"We need to figure out how to do this," Berkenkamp said.
Freezing isn't the only way to approach the problem. Some fruits and vegetables are dried, canned or fermented into wine or sauerkraut. Others last for months stored in root cellars.
Another tactic gaining traction in Minnesota is the use of high tunnels -- makeshift greenhouses constructed of plastic and metal -- to extend the growing season itself. High tunnels trap the sun's heat so crops can be planted sooner and harvested later.
The latest iterations of these huts, under research at the University of Minnesota, use solar panels to heat air that's piped underground in order to warm the earth, extending the season yet further.
CAN BUSINESSES TAKE OVER THE PROCESS?
But freezing local foods seems promising because at the right scale, it can be economical, provide farmers with income all year round, use produce that during the glut of summer might be thrown away or left in fields and make the local food supply more predictable.
The process itself can be onerous, however, when transportation and storage costs are considered. In addition, there is the matter of all that chopping and peeling. Advocates have struggled to find the right approach -- one that's small enough to be accessible, but big enough to earn some of the economies of scale that make freezing affordable.
Nationally, Minnesota is a major supplier of frozen vegetables, mainly through enormous companies like Birds Eye and Green Giant. The state freezes and cans more acres of sweet corn and peas than any other, and it is fourth in potatoes and sixth in carrots. Ironically, when Minnesota customers buy these multinational brands at the grocery store, they may be eating local without knowing it.
But the state lacks the mid-scale freezing operations that might work for independent farmers or farmers' cooperatives. Berkenkamp's report listed a variety of potential solutions, including mobile freezing units and "co-pack" relationships with existing processing companies. But larger processors often require tens of thousands of pounds of a particular vegetable at once.
SMALL OR MID-SIZED PROCESSORS NEEDED
One company Berkenkamp thinks could help is Sno Pac Foods, based in Caledonia, one of the only mid-sized freezing operations she found in the region.
"They do have capacity to sell to additional clients, and they have welcomed discussion about that," she said.
"I think it's a no-brainer that we or someone should be doing it."
She suggested the company could process late-season crops from outsiders, like kale and winter squash, during slower times at the plant.
Sno Pac, which got its start more than 100 years ago shipping pond ice to the southern states by rail, employs 50 full-time people and grows produce on 4,500 acres. The company has just built a new 27,000-square-foot addition it expects to occupy at the end of April.
"We've been doing the local thing forever," said Pete Gengler, the company's president. He ships organic frozen fruits and vegetables across the country, mainly to natural food stores.
Though the company is smaller than the giants, it still may be too big for independent local farmers.
"I think it's a no-brainer that we or someone should be doing it," said Gengler. "It only makes sense to have the frozen product. But nobody has been able to put it together. It sounds good, but then there are the economics of it."
Gengler gets "countless requests" to freeze small batches of produce but doesn't do it very often.
"We don't like to hardly set up for less than 40,000 pounds," he said. "For example, if you brought me 40,000 pounds of carrots, I could do that in four hours. But it would take another four hours to clean up the plant afterward. That's not very efficient."
In fact, Gengler has a hard time envisioning a scenario where freezing small batches is economically feasible. Even if a facility could make its numbers work, he said, the end product could be out of reach for tight-budgeted institutions.
"I hate to be the bearer of bad news," he said. "But I don't think you'll be able to sell it to a school where they can afford to buy it, unless you have that type of scale."
Yet, smaller processors do exist in other parts of the country.
"Those businesses, we found, were not large in number and are working out their business models," said Berkenkamp. "A key to success is trying to figure out how to maximize the use of the facility. It will have high use in the harvest season, but how do you use it the rest of the year?"
It may be that there are a bunch of empty commercial kitchens in Minnesota already, waiting to be tapped. In a few months, the IATP plans to send out a survey, akin to one done in Chicago, to catalogue existing capacity to freeze food.
"It's an interesting way to open it up and see what's out there and start communicating," Berkenkamp said. "It will be interesting to see who replies and to get a sense of capacity and level of readiness."
"I'd like to see entrepreneurs stepping in to do the processing," she said. "Growth in that sector of entrepreneurs will help this sector expand. We are on the front edge of this freezing issue."
CREATIVE COOKS IN THE KITCHEN
At Sibley East, the kitchen staff stands around a stainless steel counter. The four women relish their positions on the front edge of this trend because it means they get to experiment. With the help of a tattered church cookbook, they modify existing recipes and invent new ones to serve frozen produce to 400 or 500 kids every school day.
They add shredded cabbage to chow mein, make mock spiced apple rings with cucumbers and use pureed pumpkin in bars and cookies and chili. They've been especially profligate with zucchini, slipping it into everything from vegetable hot dish to brownies to pizza crust.
Sometimes the kids, who are drawn to the food they grow themselves, are none the wiser.
"You don't tell them everything," said Lorraine Lieske, who has worked here for nine years.
Last summer was the staff's third round of freezing produce from the school garden, armed with a 50-year-old Hobart mixer and a few hand-held tools like a plastic chopper and mandoline slicer. The group groans at the mention of all the slicing and dicing.
Carol Dammann, a 13-year school lunch veteran, half jokingly said, "You ask yourself, is there never an end to this?"
"It's hard work and sometimes time-consuming, and we enjoy doing it," said Budahn. "We are like family. Where one laughs, we all laugh. Where one cries, we all cry."
In the coming days, a group of agriculture students will head out into the school's field and high tunnel to plant the seeds that will start the cycle all over again. Half the produce will go to a CSA program, the money from which pays the kids to work during summer, and half will go to the cafeteria.
"We need student labor to get it done, or it would cost too much," said Tim Uhlenkamp, one of the school's agriculture teachers who co-manages the farm program. "We just fumble along. We do our research and see what comes across."
In the cafeteria's freezer, there are still several plastic containers brimming with the last of the frozen squash and pumpkin, which will make its way into an upcoming batch of chili.
"In the fall, this is so full, you can hardly get into it," Budahn said.
According to Uhlenkamp, the garden supplied food worth $10,000 last year, but, given the labor involved to process it, Budahn doubts it saved the kitchen much money.
"The idea is that the kids knew where the veggies were coming from," she said. "We know how they have been grown and who grew them. I think it's fresher. Nutritionally, it's good."