Seated in the cafeteria, Redwood Area School District students are eating their lunch.
On this day, they are having, as part of a balanced nutritional meal, hamburgers, hot dogs and sweet corn.
While the menu may not be that out of the ordinary, the story of how that food got from the farmer who produced it to the school lunch table demonstrates the effort being made by the food service program to provide healthy food options grown by local producers.
The effort is part of a program known as Farm To School, and the Redwood Area School District has been participating in it for the past several years.
“We started Farm to School here in 2010,” said Laurie Milbrandt of Taher, Inc, who serves as the food service director for the local school district.
Her goal is to implement as much of the Farm to School concept as is possible in the local school food program.
Milbrandt is always open to more ideas about how to increase the number of products offered to students that are grown by local producers.
Milbrandt and other school administrative leaders hosted an event earlier this school year known as legislator to lunch, which provided an opportunity for elected officials at the state level to come and see how the Farm to School program is being implemented.
“I think this is a very good program,” said District 16 Sen. Gary Dahms, who visited the school, adding he sees the economic benefit to producers who can provide their products to the school, as well as the health benefits to the students.
For Milbrandt, one of the challenges is getting enough of a particular menu item from a local producer to feed all of those who eat lunch at the school.
The hamburgers and hot dogs the students were eating came from Dan Tiffany, a local livestock producer, who has provided his beef to the school for the one-day event during Homecoming for the past several years.
Stephanie Helm, of the University of Minnesota Extension Service, said the Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act has placed added emphasis on nutrition, and through it programs like Farm to School have seen a dramatic increase in participation.
What started with a handful of schools in Minnesota has grown, so that the most recent data indicates there are more than 260 school districts which have implemented Farm to School on some level.
Helm added the schools involved are not just rural, as some larger schools that have thousands of students are involved, although how that involvement manifests itself is different.
While a school like RASD can work more with local producers, larger ones have contractors that go out for them and find healthy options that utilize producers that are as local as is practical. Sometimes it comes down to finances, and Helm said advocates for Farm to School are working with the state legislature to find ways to provide more funds to schools to encourage them to buy local products.
Milbrandt uses a producer from Lake Crystal who can meet the local demand, adding she gets everything from tomatoes and cauliflower to watermelon and cantaloupe.
Tom Anderson, Redwood Area School District finance director, said the real proof of the effectiveness of the program is in utilization, and he said he has seen just how much the local students have bought into the program. When fresh fruits and vegetables are served there is less waste after lunch.
“Laurie and her staff do a great job,” said Anderson.
Learn more about Farm to School and the coalition of farm, health, education and business advocates at www.farmtoschoolMN.org.