In 2016, the nutrition team at Prior Lake-Savage Area School District in Prior Lake, Minn. began their first foray into farm-to-school when they started serving local apples on the menu.
Today, a handful of other local ingredients have also found their way onto the lunch line as the team has expanded the program’s reach.
Their accomplishments were recognized recently when they were honored as the state’s first-ever Farm to School District of the Year winner by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
Along with getting to try new local ingredients throughout the year, the district’s farm-to-school program has allowed students to get an inside look at where their food comes from and also gain more confidence in trying new things.
Finding the farms
Currently, the team works with around 12 local suppliers, most of which were found through researching farms and food hubs in the area.
Once the team finds out about a particular supplier they would like to work with, they often simply reach out.
“We just pick up the phone and call them,” says Food Service Director Emily Malone.
More recently, the team has also begun advertising its farm-to-school program on their Facebook page and has been able to gain a few new contacts that way.
“It was kind of a shot in the dark and we ended up getting quite a few inquiries,” says Malone.
Along with fresh produce, other local products on the menu include animal proteins as well as shelf-stable items such as wild rice, maple syrup and honey. This allows the team to continue offering local ingredients during the winter months when local fruits and vegetables are not as readily available.
The local products end up in entrees as well as on the garden bar that is available to students every day.
“We have what we call a garden bar on every line,” says Malone. “So, we'll have our hot or cold main entree and then students can choose the bar items that they want.”
Getting out of the cafeteria
Prior Lake-Savage's farm-to-school program extends beyond the four walls of the cafeteria. A couple years before COVID, the team began its “Meet the Farmer” series where a local farmer would visit the school and talk to students about their job and what they grow.
During the pandemic, the team transitioned to having the students visit the farmers since they could be outside and partake in social distancing. The new format stuck, and today, students still routinely take field trips to local farms and hear from the farmers.
Each year, the team also partners with a local corn farmer to host a corn husking relay with students. Once the corn has been husked, it is then served on the lunch line.
Students are further encouraged to enjoy local ingredients every Tuesday as part of the team’s “Try It Tuesday” series which spotlights a different local ingredient each week. The series has enabled students to become more familiar with different food items and gain confidence in trying new things.
When the team first introduced watermelon radishes several years ago, for example, students were a little hesitant about the new item, says Malone. After being able learn more about it and try it a couple of times, however, students now see it as a regular part of the menu.
“We do a lot of trying and then we keep on the menu,” she says. “We just keep going with it and eventually it just becomes normal.”
It’s easy to think launching a farm-to-school program could be daunting task, Malone said, but it is typically not as complicated as it appears to be.
She encourages other school nutrition professionals to utilize the farm-to-school resources made available by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and from state departments. There are also many different types of grant funding available to help.
“I would encourage people to just jump in and try it,” she says.