Minnesota farm to school nutrition programs grow, along with challenges

School cooking
"It takes a whole different level of commitment and knowledge and skill," said Alice Smith Elementary cook supervisor Jackie Kanthak of scratch cooking in schools. "You know, they'll tell us to braise something. Not every Joe is going to know how to braise something."
MPR Photo/Julie Siple

Squash, cucumbers and tomatoes grown right here in Minnesota are winding up on the plates of Minnesota schoolchildren more often. Data released this week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture show the Farm to School program has exploded across the state in recent years.

But preparing food for students that comes right from the farm isn't as easy as you might think, as Jackie Kanthak and Sheila Garcia can attest -- standing in the kitchen at Alice Smith Elementary in Hopkins early one recent morning, washing 200 pounds of tomatoes.

The two are making something you won't find in most school lunchrooms: homemade tomato sauce.

"This is the last batch for the season," Kanthak said. "When we get [produce] from the farm, we have to wash it, maybe cut off a few small bad spots on things. It's a fair amount of work."

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It's certainly more work than opening cans of tomato sauce. In fact, most food straight from the farm requires some extra labor. Kanthak remembers the day she got a few pounds of carrots from the school garden -- dirty, with stems on top.

"It was really putsy for three pounds of carrots, whereas I can open a bag of baby carrots. But at the same time, I think that it's worth it," she said.

Hopkins is one of the districts leading the way in this trend, as schools figure out how to efficiently prepare local food. New data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show at least 179 Minnesota school districts now participate in Farm to School, covering more than half of the state's student population. That's a huge jump from 2006, when fewer than 20 districts participated. But as the volume and variety of products grow, schools are struggling to prepare that food-- and acquire the equipment and kitchen facilities to do it.

Barb Mechura
"There's host of reasons why we have an obesity and health epidemic," said Barb Mechura, school nutrition director for Hopkins Public Schools. "But there's a lot of research that shows these highly processed foods, and foods that have less nutrient value than local foods, that they are high contributors to the problems we're facing." Mechura has been a leader in Farm to School efforts in Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Julie Siple

Barb Mechura, the school nutrition director for Hopkins Public Schools, has worked in school food service since 1988, long enough to watch cafeterias shift from scratch cooking to using processed food. Now, she says, many are trying to shift back.

"I'd say one of the biggest challenges though are the facilities," Mechura said. When schools started serving chicken nuggets and baby carrots, they no longer needed equipment for scratch cooking. "Our kitchens were really largely gutted of a lot of equipment, some of the kitchen space. And so we're left with kitchens that are undersized and underequipped."

Retooling school kitchens can be expensive, said JoAnne Berkenkamp, a local foods consultant based in Minneapolis.

"To be cooking at that kind of scale, where you might have 1,000 kids, 10,000 kids, 30,000-40,000 kids like some of our largest districts, it can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars to make changes," Berenkamp said.

Fully renovating just one school kitchen can cost upwards of a million dollars, she said.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture has offered schools grants to offset the cost of kitchen upgrades and equipment like giant food processors and produce washers.

Berkenkamp argues that it's worth the extra cost, in light of the country's child obesity crisis, and because schools are the primary source of nutrition for many low-income kids.

Mechura agreed. "There's a host of reasons why we have an obesity and health epidemic," she said. "But there's a lot of research that shows these highly processed foods, and foods that have less nutrient value than local foods, that they are high contributors to the problems we're facing."

The giant blender
Jackie Kanthak uses a giant immersion blender to make tomato sauce at Alice Smith Elementary in Hopkins on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013. The Hopkins schools received a grant from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to buy the blender.
MPR Photo/ Julie Siple

Hopkins Public Schools will ask voters to help fund kitchen improvements in a ballot referendum on Nov. 5.

Some schools are turning to produce distributors to do the work for them. Orono Schools is among those districts, says child nutrition supervisor Kris Diller.

"Produce companies are now labelling for us when the produce is local, and what farm it's coming from. They can also cut it and chop it and prepare it for us, so when we get it fresh, it's all ready to go," she said.

Back at Alice Smith Elementary in Hopkins, Jackie Kanthak has cleaned, chopped, seasoned, and roasted the tomatoes, which are ready for blending with a power tool that appears larger than some of the kids who will eat the food she's preparing.

"This is our stick blender," bought with a Farm to School grant, she said. "When I use it, I feel like I'm using power tools. A jackhammer or some sort of a saw. It kind of vibrates your whole body."

No regular blender could do this -- it would simply burn out. With it, she will blend nearly 20 gallons of tomato sauce in five minutes. Then she'll put it in the freezer, to feed kids well into the winter.