Morris Area Schools farm-to-school program fills up local students’ plates

What do your kids eat every day at school? No doubt this is a question that many parents and guardians wonder about when deciding if they should pack a lunch for their children’s school day. With the Morris Area School District, you don’t have to wonder.

The Morris Area Schools take part in a farm-to-school program to put as much fresh and local food on the table as possible. Jeanine Bowman, Food Service Director at Morris Area Schools, coordinates the program and is responsible for the procurement of the food.

Bowman says that the program received grants from the Minnesota Department of Education, the Department of Agriculture, and the USDA totaling about $36,000 that will be used from last spring through January of 2024.

The farm-to-school program is aimed at bringing local products to the school to feed the students. “My philosophy is I want it to be the norm, not just once in a while,” says Bowman. 

Bowman uses a variety of different foods from fresh produce to meats and grains. 

The grants help to buy local beef, which will be served to the high schoolers as beef patties. The ovens at the high school can grill burgers and one even has a smoker attachment, which will smoke the roasts and briskets to make smoked sandwiches.

Bowman also uses a wild rice blend often, and uses Canoe canned wild rice, which is a Minnesota based company.

The grapes come from 3B Vineyard in Dawson. The fourth graders visited the vineyard on the second day of school with the goal of picking 200 pounds to bring back, which they exceeded. The grapes picked were served on Thursday and Friday of that week and those that weren’t used were frozen to be used later.

The Morris Area Elementary School second graders visit Country Blossom , in Alexandria, every October to pick apples. It’s a great opportunity for the students to learn and participate in where their food comes from, and it also saves a little bit of money on the transportation and delivery. One of the goals of the farm-to-school program is to reduce a carbon footprint, so if they can cut down on deliveries when possible by having field trips bring them back, or if Bowman can pick up orders on her way to work, it all adds up.

Not everything in the farm-to-school program is grant funded. Every Monday, Bowman orders carrots from Fresha for the week. Peppers and tomatoes come from the West Central Research and Outreach Center. Bowman is also working on procuring dry legumes. She works with a food hub in Willmar called the Becker Market where she gets things like asparagus and potatoes. She will be getting fresh eggs from the Becker Market as well, and they also have local butter and honey. She works on getting fresh foods throughout the year until she isn’t able to get them anymore, usually around the end of January. “There’s only a few months out of the year that we don’t have it,” says Bowman. Sometimes the farm-to-school program foods can cost a little more than using bulk dealer foods, but it can also save money when you figure in the transportation and shipping costs that are saved. The food speaks for itself, “If you buy an apple at the store, it could be 18 months old,” Bowman said. “And the ones we serve we know were picked last week. And you can taste the freshness.”

Bowman is still looking for a supplier to get watermelon and cantaloupe and is open to suggestions. 

A walk-in freezer and cooler that was installed recently has helped tremendously, she says. It provides good storage and helps them better keep track of what they’re using.

This will be Bowman’s 15th year with Morris Area Schools, and they were already using fresh apples the first year she began. The program has continued to grow since.

The farm-to-school program isn’t only about using local and fresh foods, but also about education. Keeping the kids involved in the process, and talking to them about it is integral to the program. Usually in October, Bowman visits the elementary classes to read them a book she’s picked out, and she also visits the Family and Consumer Science classes. “We talk about a variety of things, not just about farm-to-school but our department as a whole,” she says.

Sourcing the food for the program requires following a few guidelines. Bowman says it’s important that the farmers use good husbandry practices, hygiene and safety practices, clean containers, and minimal chemicals. When buying live animals, Bowman says it’s more about the butcher. She uses the butcher in Hancock because they are USDA certified, and there they can do all of the proper checks to make sure the animal is safe.

Bowman is responsible for the menu served at school, and tries to cook a lot from scratch or at least partially from scratch. The USDA provides meal patterns for her to follow, and she can tailor her menu from that. The program she uses to create the menus help her follow all of the nutritional guidelines necessary, and it also helps the parents stay on top of their children’s diet. Parents can log on to the website and use the build a meal feature to help them understand the nutritional breakdown of the meals. If they have a child with food restrictions or allergies, they can use that program to see the nutritional information after they’ve eliminated certain foods from the meal. The program provides pictures to go along with the menu that make it easier to understand for kids, too. 

The Morris farm-to-school program provides a fun and fresh way to incorporate locally sourced foods into kids’ diets. Not only does it provide nutritional benefits, but it also provides an environment for learning about agriculture and sourcing foods.