Mesabi East Schools have taken the Farm to School initiative farther than most in the Northland when the district purchased the local greenhouse business in Aurora, which even during the pandemic is being utilized by students.
In October, which is Farm to School Month, Minnesotans are encouraged to celebrate the connections that exist between our students and local food, Minnesota Department of Education Assistant Commissioner Daron Korte said.
“Farm to School happens in cafeterias, classrooms and communities by connecting schools with fresh and healthy food that’s been grown and raised by Minnesota farmers,” he said. “That looks different in every part of the state as we are a big state that is diverse geographically in terms of foods and products that are produced across the state.”
"… Look for the Minnesota Grown logo. That tells you that the product has been produced by a local farmer."
- Daron Korte, Minnesota Department of Education Assistant Commissioner
Korte said some schools will participate in Farm to School by purchasing produce from a local farmer, by educating students on where their food comes from or by having a school garden program. Korte said some schools do all three.
Rachel Doherty, Mesabi East's Farm to School coordinator and agricultural teacher, said although the pandemic required them to rethink how they incorporated Farm to School into the classroom, it’s worked out really well.
Instead of implementing Farm to School in kindergarten through 12th grade, because of the unique situation and unpredictability of this school year, the district is offering a Farm to School class for 11th and 12th grades, she said. In that class, the students are learning what local foods really mean, calculating food miles and looking at their food footprint.
“Once they take all that information, they can figure out what are our local foods and where they can be sources,” Doherty said. “Then we will purchase those local foods, with the help of a grant, and put them into recipe ideas.”
Doherty said those recipes will actually be made by district students during their chef’s cooking class, taste-testing them as well as getting the elementary students to taste test the recipes.
Doherty said Mesabi East received a grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the Farm to School program. The original plan was to grow as much produce as possible for the school’s cafeteria. This was going to be done by building and using more than 40 raised planter beds in the five greenhouses the district bought.
Due to the pandemic and school being closed last spring, Doherty said they had to reinvent how they used the grant money.
“Though we’re not providing the school with as much produce as we thought we would, we are still making changes, just in a more upfront way through the recipes and curriculum-based ideas,” she said.
Doherty said the Farm to School program is important because it helps students connect with where their food comes from.
“Being able to have hands-on learning experiences where students are able to watch their work from a seed level through the germination process to the table, instead of going to the grocery store, can be really empowering for them,” she said.
Doherty said the program is even more important during the pandemic as the county has faced shortages of everything from toilet paper to hand sanitizer.
“Being able to be locally sustainable and to teach our children that through Farm to School is very important,” she said. “They themselves are even realizing the importance of that now.”
Doherty said in one class, they did a taste-testing of locally grown produce versus what’s at the grocery store. She said the biggest difference most of the students noticed was the taste in a Red Delicious apple.
“Those kids who said they weren’t a fan of apples said, ‘This is really good,’” Doherty said. “We did the same thing with carrots — you know, the standard grab bag of mini-carrots versus a carrot that was grown locally — and they were shocked at the difference in what the taste was.”
Korte said he wants to encourage everyone around the state to buy locally.
“If you’re in the produce section at a grocery store, or even in other parts of the grocery store, look for the Minnesota Grown logo,” he said. “That tells you that the product has been produced by a local farmer.”