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How to succeed at farm to school:
Learn from a farmer and school official who did

With Greg Reynolds of Riverbend Farm and
Barb Mechura, director of nutrition for the Hopkins school district
Sunday, August 29. 1:30 p.m.
Eisenhower Elementary School, 1001 Highway 7, Hopkins

A review by Hanna Miller

Slow Food Minnesota invited local food enthusiasts to the Wetlands Café on August 29 for a conversation about Farm to School with Barb Mechura, director of nutrition services for the Hopkins school district, and Greg Reynolds of Riverbend Farm.

Mechura and Reynolds sat before a backdrop of greenery of Eisenhower Elementaryís back yard, and spoke informally to a group of about 25 people of all ages. “Greg and I like to shoot from the hip,&rdquo said Mechura, smiling, before she began the conversation about school food.

School Food Cycle
In her twenty years of student meal program experience, Mechura has seen school nutrition come full circle. Back in 1988, commodity food came in raw form: whole chickens, blocks of cheese, and bags of carrots. In the ’90s, several forces combined to change the nature of school lunches.

First, student preferences changed to more convenience foods. Second, hiring outside cafeteria managers became more popular, these businesses could guarantee high student participation rates, up to 80 percent. Third, food manufacturers began to step into the commodity market and process those whole chickens, blocks of cheese, and raw carrots.

Finally, the labor market changed. People who wanted to work in kitchens were in short supply. Meal preparation moved away from cutting up chicken and peeling carrots toward reheating chicken tenders and opening bags of baby carrots.

Many schools, however, are moving back to from-scratch cooking. Approximately fifty percent of meals prepared at the Hopkins School District’s six elementary and two junior high schools are from scratch, and the figure stands at 90 percent at the high school. And farmers like Greg Reynolds are helping to bring local foods into the kitchen.

Riverbend Farm
Reynolds farms thirty certified organic acres in Delano, MN and does business with local, chef-driven restaurants like Alma and Common Roots Café, as well as operating a small CSA.

Last winter, Renewing the Countryside, a nonprofit organization dedicated to championing rural communities, held a farmer-chef networking event. Reynolds had been to several of these events before and knew almost everyone, but a friend who knew that Mechura was going to be there persuaded him to come. The two began working together immediately to address Hopkins’ needs.

One of the first challenges was furnishing a potato to meet the school nutrition guideline’s 6 oz. portion size. Reynolds talked Mechura down to two 3-oz potatoes instead. His workers spent days sorting and weighing potatoes, sitting with the “ideal” potato in front of them as a guide. “They hated it!” he said. He ended up delivering potatoes between 2 1/2 and 3 1/2 ounces.

This variation in size and the two-potato delivery had serendipitous results. First, the two smaller potatoes were not as overwhelmingly large to the younger kids as 6-oz potato. Also, those with smaller appetites could take smaller potatoes to match, wasting less and leaving the larger potatoes to older, hungrier students.

Creating an accommodating environment
Challenges face a school food service director from all sides, from cramped, underequipped kitchens to tight budgets. Getting kids to eat what’s on their tray is a major one. At Hopkins, they have implemented two strategies targeting elementary students to increase food consumption and decrease waste.

This year, five Hopkins elementary schools will have recess before lunch, rather than after. Students have the opportunities to get all their wiggles out, from sitting in classes all morning, before they sit down again to a meal. And running around outside whets their appetites for a Rachel Wrap and Godzilla Green Beans (creative names for vegetable and fruit sides are another strategy).

Food coaching addresses the issue of attention span at another level. Parents volunteer as “food coaches” during lunch to encourage kids to take another bite of peaches, to help open their milk cartons, and generally remind them that they are there to eat. “Think of meals at the holidays, with all the people and excitement,” Mechura said. “Itís like that every day here.”

Local foods to finish
Since Slow Foods MN’s mission includes advocating for farmers who grow and market wholesome food, as well as celebrating food as a cornerstone of pleasure, culture and community, we adjourned for a potluck after wrapping up our discussion.

Tables groaned with SunShine Harvest Farm Italian sausages and bacon burgers served with pepper, eggplant, and acorn squash, grilled by student of Le Cordon Bleu. Attendees brought sides and desserts ranging from Snappy Crunchy Coleslaw and gardened cucumber salad to gluten-free carrot cake with goat cheese frosting and a rose-geranium-scented poundcake.

Greg Reynolds, Hannah Miller and Barb Mechura

Ginny Black on composting

Sunday, June 13, 4 – 7 p.m.
Wabun Picnic Area, Minnehaha Park, Minneapolis

A talk on composting from a backyard-to-statewide perspective with Ginny Black. Ginny works for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency as its organics recycling specialist. She assists the private, public and non-profit sectors in reusing and recycling food residuals and non-recyclable paper. She also works with compost facilities to develop markets for high quality compost. She has served as a Board member of the US Composting Council board of directors since 1995.

The talk was followed by a semi-potluck picnic. Slow Food Minnesota provided the main course of grilled beef, sausages and vegetables. Participats brought side dishes and desserts.

We reserved a lovely picnic facility with hiking trails and a wading pool nearby.

Newspaper as compost medium. (Photo: Val Landwehr)

Ginny Black shows her worm composting bin. (Photo: Val Landwehr)

(Photo: Val Landwehr)

(Photo: Jane Rosemarin)

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