It’s that time of year – books, backpacks and a BBQ! That’s right - Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) is preparing for its annual Farm to School Community BBQ, a much anticipated back-to-school event that kicks off the school year. The following guest blog features inspiring initiatives MPS has implemented to serve local foods to its 35,000 students in the district.
Since 2011, MPS has sourced fresh produce, meats, baked goods and other products from local farmers and manufacturers. Purchasing local foods supports Minnesota farms and small businesses and provides opportunities for students to learn how their food is grown by extending farm to school efforts beyond the cafeteria and into the classroom with visits from farmers and taste-tests.
Farm to school also helps to support another USDA initiative designed to enhance school meals – the What’s Shaking? Creative Ways to Boost Flavor with Less Sodium initiative. Using local foods means that school nutrition programs are preparing more meals from scratch, allowing them to control the amount of sodium. Farm to school gets students engaged and excited about school meals – and with the community BBQ, both kids and their families get a sneak peek at what’s going to be on the lunch menu for the new school year.
By Kate Seybold, Farm to School Coordinator, Minneapolis Public Schools
What better way to ring in the new school year than by celebrating the bounties of local produce that farmers harvest during the back-to-school season? Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) is hosting its Fifth Annual Farm to School Community BBQ – a community event built around fresh food, families and fun! The event brings together MPS students and their families, school staff, local farmers and vendors, True Food Chef Council members and other community partners in celebration of Minnesota Farm to School Month and our farm to school program.
It’s also a great opportunity to give the community a taste of our school food! This year, we expect around 1,000 attendees to join our local food celebration, which generates student excitement and family awareness about the abundance of local fresh fruits and vegetables that farmers grow in our area and that we serve on school salad bars and in delicious, made-from-scratch recipes featured on our school lunch menu! The evening will be filled with tons of roasted corn and other farm to school foods – along with dozens of fun activities and live music. The highlight of the night is the corn-shucking contest to see who can shuck the most ears of corn in only a few minutes.
The 2016-2017 school year marks the fifth year of MPS’ Farm to School Program. Since 2012, MPS has worked with small to mid-size, sustainable growers in our area to incorporate a variety of vegetables and fruit into our school meals. New farm to school foods are often introduced as a trial-run on the menu to allow us to gauge students’ responses and make decisions about moving forward with items. Last year, students went crazy over the roasted cauliflower and the fresh honeydew melon – they loved them! This year, we’ll buy everything from Brussels sprouts to kohlrabi to sweet potatoes, from more than 15 local farms. The sweet potatoes are featured as sweet potato jo-jo’s and in our “Beets and Sweets” menu item – which are roasted sweet potatoes and beets. The kohlrabi is made into a fresh slaw with carrots, apples and ginger.
Along with buying local, our farm to school program works closely with our community partners to provide food education and to interact with the broader community through our Minnesota Thursdays meals, True Food Taste Tests, Jr Iron Chef Competition, farmer classroom visits, and much more. These activities encourage students to be more adventurous eaters and educate them about where their food comes from.
Our farm to school initiative has also helped us meet and exceed the guidelines to keep sodium minimal in school meals. Also, less food seems to go to waste with fresh, flavorful scratch-cooking. At the end of each school year, we ask our school nutrition staff to complete surveys about popular farm to school menu items among their students. This information helps us to decide which items we would like to procure the following year through our farm to school program.
Building our farm to school program has been a learning process. We decided the best way to help other districts join this local food movement would be to share all the lessons we learned along the way! Our recently published Farm to School Toolkit has tools and resources that have been developed since the program’s inception in Minneapolis.
To learn more about farm to school programs, check out the Community Food System’s Webpage and to explore local and regional food systems in your community, visit the USDA Farm to School Census. Also, USDA’s What’s Shaking? Creative Ways to Boost Flavor With Less Sodium, a national sodium-reduction initiative, fosters creative ways to boost flavor and maximize taste to support efforts to lower the sodium content of school meals.