Reprinted with permission from the Waconia Patriot
By Al Lohman
About 60 school nutrition services directors from around the state were in Waconia one day late last month for a kind of food summit.
Café 110, which serves nine cafeterias in School District 110, was recently named grand champion in the Minnesota Department of Education’s Farm to School program, and other school lunch program nutritionists were here to learn about the district’s fresh food approach and local sourcing initiative.
In line with the “farm to table” movement on the regional restaurant scene, the district’s “farm to school” movement has evolved over the past several years. The authentic food initiative has transformed the district’s nutrition service by making the healthy choice the preferred, affordable, and sustainable choice for students, staff and parents, notes Barb Schank, district director of Nutrition Services. (see Feb. 15, 2018 Waconia Patriot),
The local movement traces its roots to the Waconia “edible classroom,” which started in 2009 at the middle school as a vegetable garden with adjacent fruit trees. The garden plot engages students about the “seed to table” progression of food, and much of the produce goes to school larders. Meanwhile, a bee project that has begun at the middle school yields about three gallons of natural honey seasonally that is used in the cafeterias.
The school district also sources with almost 20 local farmers and artisans across the state for fruits, vegetables, whole grain flour, wild rice and maple syrup, to name a few products.
That means more made-from-scratch offerings, versus packaged and frozen meals, new homemade recipes, more healthy choice options, and just generally better tasting food, Schank notes.
Some of the from-scratch offerings include: signature salad dressings, sauces and syrups; a variety of pasta dishes created from the district’s own pasta maker; house breads and bakery items; “meatless Mondays” vegetarian choices; a la carte snacks; even freshly brewed signature teas and house lemonades.
These fresh and local options are not the norm in school districts across the state, Schank has learned as chair of a group called the School Nutrition Directors of Minnesota, and she said visiting nutritionists were eager to learn about Waconia Schools’ initiatives.
“What they seemed to be most impressed with was the excitement of our Café 110 team,” Schank said. “I think there’s a lot more excitement when you are actually creating and preparing meals, rather than just heating and serving them.”
And the excitement continues.
Schank is excited about a partnership the district has established with the Winsted-Howard Lake FFA to get that group’s excess squash and pumpkins, which could be used to create “build your own” ravioli.
She is also working on a grant application that could be used to add special freezer space for the district’s sourced produce, and maybe even enable the district to secure and process its own beef. Schank and team currently are exploring a signature “Wildcat” burger using local beef and wild rice.
Schank notes that even the school lunchroom has become a kind of classroom, with kitchen staff sharing their excitement about food with students, and promoting and encouraging students to try new food items. It’s a place that all students visit each day, she adds, and Schank is working with a high school business entrepreneurship class to explore a possible health-related lunchtime trivia game with potentially fresh-baked food items like cookies as prizes.
Finally, from a sustainability aspect, at the start of the school year the five main cafeterias in the district started using bulk milk dispensers rather than single-serving cartons as part of a grant from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. More commonly found in hospitals and colleges, milk dispensers are now starting to be used in grade schools to reduce waste and save costs.
Schank notes that by giving students reusable cups and encouraging them to take only as much milk as they want to drink, the district has avoided dumping 100 gallons of unused milk from cartons down the drain each day, plus has kept an estimated 400,000 milk cartons a year from being dumped in landfills. The milk also has a better taste and can be kept at a colder temperature, she adds.
That initiative was featured in a recent issue of Dairy Star magazine and Minnesota Dairy Council representatives will be here in the next couple of weeks for their own District 110 lunchroom visit.