As the food and nutrition director for Dover-Eyota School District, Carrie Frank didn’t know she’d get an opportunity to change the lives of the district’s 1,142 students when she stopped by a produce stand in nearby Rochester to purchase fresh sweet corn.
For some time, Carrie struggled to find a farmer who could deliver locally grown fruits and vegetables in a relatively small volume every day for her students. Now, at this stand, Carrie’s chance to finally make Farm to School a reality stood in front of her in an Eyota High School t-shirt bagging her ears of corn.
“Have you ever thought of selling to schools?” Carrie asked the vendor—a question that ultimately led the student to give Carrie the contact info to a produce supplier located right in Eyota, Produce Plus.
It’s been almost four years since Dover-Eyota School District kicked-off its Farm to School program. We sat down with Carrie to learn more about how the district’s food service has changed since the implementation of Farm to School.
What were the challenges in getting Farm to School to actually work?
There was a language barrier. By that I mean the farmer would say, “How many bushels of apples do you want?” And I would say, “How many apples are in a bushel?” I was used to talking about apples by the case, whereas farmers talked about them by the bushel, so I had to learn the language. Also, early on I had to get an understanding of how the growing season affected the availability of local produce and determine ways to work around that.
Another challenge was easing staff’s concerns around the transition. When you go to the store and pick up tomatoes, they are pretty washed. When working directly with farmers, they’re bringing in product that’s very soiled. Staff had to learn how to wash and handle fresh produce. With that came concerns about the time available for prepping fresh food. (See profile below: “We are doing what?”)
How have students responded?
Students are very happy. When I’m visiting schools, students come up to me and ask where I got a certain product, because they can taste and smell the difference. I’m much more thoughtful about what I eat as a result of being involved in Farm to School and learning about the food system. And it’s the same for students. We see our high school students eating more fruits and vegetables. They tell me how much they like the food, and how much they know about what’s healthy and what’s not.
The gentleman who sells me apples mentors students in our high school agriculture classes. Our turkey farmer also talks to classes about how to raise free-range, organic turkeys. We even had a buffalo farmer bring in a buffalo!
What’s been the most rewarding part of this process?
The students’ sense of pride. Elementary students often come to school not knowing how to eat whole apples, because they’re used to it being cut up for them. I’ve had to teach students about how to eat raw food. Students also learn where their food comes from. I had a squash taste test one day and one of the students in the elementary school said, “My grandfather and I picked those on Sunday!”
What advice would you give to other districts looking to start a Farm to School initiative?
It’s important to work closely with the local health department. If a school is going from handling pre-cooked chicken patties to raw meat, it’s good to get the health department involved. Our health department was very helpful in training the staff.
We are doing what?
Cindy Gray is a cook at Dover-Eyota Elementary School. When Farm to School came to her school kitchen, she wondered how she would get fresh corn ready for 450 students by lunchtime. After going through training, Cindy’s concerns would flee.
I’ve been employed by the same school for 20 years, so I’ve seen many changes. Right before we started Farm to School, we opened lots of cans of fruit. You often think those are quick things to do, but it was amazing how fresh products were easier to deal with than some convenience foods. Washing 10 watermelons doesn’t take any longer than opening and taking labels off cans of pineapple. And that has been an eye opener.
Overall, Farm to School has really given me pride in my work. When children see the watermelon coming into the kitchen, they often stop in the doorway to ask, “Is that for us?” I get to tell them that it is, and we’re going to wash, cut up and serve the watermelon for lunch. If someone were to say Farm to School is more work, I would say it is definitely worth it.