By Dan Lemke

Each weekday, hundreds of thousands of Minnesota kids walk, pedal, ride or drive to nearby schools in search of education. To power higher learning, schools across the state provide an estimated 975,000 lunches each day and an additional 550,000 breakfasts.

Despite strict meal planning requirements and often tight budgets, there is growing interest across Minnesota to incorporate more locally produced foods into school menus. Numerous Minnesota school districts have established farm to school connections that bring local foods into the lunchroom, providing nutritious food and exposing children to agriculture.

“Most students don’t know where their food comes from and the foods they’re eating at home are ever more processed,” says Jean Ronnei, school nutrition expert. “Farm to school programs expose students to unprocessed or minimally processed foods.”

Ronnei is former chief operating officer and director of nutrition services for St. Paul Public Schools. She also served as School Nutrition Association national president. Ronnei worked with AURI on several projects to learn more about the opportunity school lunch programs offer to Minnesota businesses and to help those companies navigate the complex pathway from farm to school.

Broadening Interest

Interest in locally sourced food goes beyond fresh produce and now includes minimally processed, value-added food products. Gaining access to the school food market provides an opportunity for some Minnesota food entrepreneurs while strengthening the connection between farming and the food kids eat.

“Farm to school programs offer an opportunity to establish a pipeline for getting local farm produce into schools, but there’s also interest in getting more finished products into schools,” says Jennifer Wagner-Lahr, AURI senior director of innovation and commercialization.

Ronnei says many school districts are facing increasing pressure from their communities to offer healthier food, which includes focusing on clean labels—products with fewer ingredients of concern—for the items they’re serving. Ronnei and Catherine Stine, The Stine Group engaged with school districts across Minnesota to gauge the importance of food with clean labels. Ronnei then worked with The Good Acre to conduct webinars with food entrepreneurs to help them understand more about the opportunities and requirements for getting their products onto school menus.

“School food programs are very complicated,” Ronnei says. “Nutrition directors face complex regulations and nutrition requirements, and it can be challenging for them to make their budgets work.”

Businesses hoping to enter the school food market face a daunting task to convince school nutrition directors that their products can work into nutrition plans, but it is happening.

A Decade of Development

Ferndale Market, a family-owned turkey farm and retail market in Cannon Falls, is one of many Minnesota business that is making farm to school work. Owner John Peterson says his turkey products first got in the school lunch door nearly 10 years ago. He then connected with several schools through a series of farmer-buyer events.

“It was a real education for me,” Peterson says. “I learned how few schools could prepare raw protein. I came to the realization that if we’re going to do meaningful work with schools, we had to match their needs.”

As a result, Peterson and Ferndale Market worked to develop heat and serve turkey products that perform well in schools. Today, Peterson says Ferndale Market has products including turkey brats and burgers in 12 to 15 school districts ranging from the local Cannon Falls schools to larger districts, including Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Peterson says that even though it seems logical to pair locally grown food with local schools, the process isn’t that simple. He says school nutrition directors must balance cost and nutrition guidelines while providing students with healthy food items they’ll actually eat.

“It takes a lot of creativity on their (nutrition directors) part to make it work. They really have a puzzle to put together,” Peterson says. “I stand in awe of how they do it.”

Peterson says in his experience, districts either completely shy away from incorporating local foods or they are trying to incorporate locally-sourced ingredients, even if its once a year. October is national Farm to School month, with many districts sourcing ingredients for at least one meal from local farms.

“That creates an opportunity for farmers who want to dip their toe into the school market,” Peterson contends. “We’re most appreciative of districts that have woven local foods into their meal planning.”

AURI Support

Because the path from farm to school lunches can be complex, AURI is ramping up its expertise to help food companies and entrepreneurs be better equipped to enter that market. AURI food scientist Lolly Occhino is learning more about the criteria school nutrition directors use when considering adding food products to their menus. That knowledge should better prepare AURI clients who may be a fit for school lunches.

“We are still at the earlier stages, but we can work with food entrepreneurs on their product formulation sheets, which help food service managers understand how that product may fit into their menu,” Occhino says.

Because the farm to school market opportunity is relatively new, there is a lot to learn about the challenges.

“There is definitely an opportunity, but there are a lot of barriers to entry, including pricing, technical needs and determining where the product fits in,” Occhino adds. “School food is an untapped market that a lot of businesses haven’t yet taken advantage.”

Ronnei says schools also are trying to improve the perception of school lunches by offering new food items that students like, which presents another opportunity for food entrepreneurs.

“It’s extremely valuable if you can get all those factors in line,” Ronnei says.

Checking All the Boxes

Ronnei says school lunch directors not only evaluate nutrition and price, they must consider whether a food product has the proper distribution channel established. St. Paul schools, for example, serve about 30,000 lunches and 20,000 breakfasts per day. The meals are prepared at a central kitchen and distributed throughout the district.

The Good Acre is a nonprofit food hub located in Falcon Heights that works to connect and strengthen farmers, food makers, and communities through food. One of the organization’s fastest growing areas of work is its Culinary Training program, which helps schools successfully include more local produce on their lunch lines.

“This presents a huge opportunity as a lot of schools are featuring local produce because it’s what parents want,” says Nikki Warner, The Good Acre marketing manager. “If we can help farmers grow for bigger wholesale accounts and get kids to eat more fresh produce, that’s a win.”

In 2017, The Good Acre sold 90,000 pounds of produce to 14 school districts, providing 576,000 vegetable servings to students. Making local food more accessible is one benefit of the organization’s wholesale program, but its primary goal is to support local farmers.

“While each case order may seem inconsequential to overall food system change, the impact to the local economy and individual family farms is significant. Our wholesale program returns 80 to 90 percent of each dollar in sales right back to the farmers we work with,” says Nick Mabe, Sales and Logistics Director at The Good Acre.

Getting into school nutrition programs may not be for everyone, but for some businesses, it may be the market boost they need.

“It is a way to scale up business,” Wagner-Lahr says. “Its not likely to be a massive money-maker, but if you can put products onto a school menu even once a month, you are creating new consumers. It’s a great way to market products and get healthy items into schools.”

October is National Farm to School Month

October is National Farm to School Month, a time to celebrate connections between schools and local food. While many school districts host their own activities, there are two major statewide activities to celebrate.

Thursday, October 4, participating schools throughout Minnesota will celebrate Minnesota Thursday. All menu items will be sourced from Minnesota producers. This year’s menu includes turkey chili, roasted potato wedges, cornbread, coleslaw, apple crisp, and milk.

Thursday, October 11, schools, early care organizations, and others are participating in the Great Lakes Great Apple Crunch. At noon (or during a regularly scheduled lunch period), students will bite down on an apple and create a giant “Crunch!” Schools all over the Great Lakes region will be participating. Some schools will even invite a local apple farmer to join them. Schools in Minnesota that register ahead of time will be sent stickers for all participating students.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) also celebrates Farm to School Month by visiting a few select schools each year that have received AGRI Farm to School Grants.

“Our first coordinated statewide Farm to School Month celebration in Minnesota was in 2012,” says Ashley Bress, MDA marketing and development. “Our goal is always to strengthen the connections between local producers and local schools, and this is a great opportunity to raise awareness of the opportunity for schools to purchase locally.”

Bress says in 2017, over 1.5 million people across the Great Lakes region joined in the celebration with 244,002 apple crunchers in Minnesota from 619 schools and organizations. In 2018, MDA has set a goal of having 260,000 apple crunchers at 260 sites statewide and having 25 school districts participate in Minnesota Thursdays.

Farm to School Month celebrates the connection communities have with fresh, healthy food and local food producers by changing food purchasing and education practices at schools and preschools. Bress says when schools buy local, they create new markets for local and regional farmers and contribute to vibrant communities.

“At the MDA, we see Farm to School as one tool that producers can use to diversify their revenue streams,” Bress says. “Very few farmers are going to be able subsist on just Farm to School, but it’s another tool that they can add to their business.”

Bress says kids are excited about Farm to School and they’re often willing to try different fruits and vegetables when they’ve had an opportunity to grow the item in a school garden or to meet the farmer who produced it. They’ll then go home and ask their parents or caregivers to purchase the item at the grocery store or at the farmers’ market.

“If we can get kids excited about fruits and vegetables and other local offerings, they’re going to be able to influence their families and are more apt to become lifelong consumers of local food,” Bress says.