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'Farm to School' foods gain traction at Morris Area

Morris Area ag students on Tuesday husked sweet corn that will be included on the school's cafeteria menu. More and more, local foods are being incorporated into food service offerings.

Efforts to include more "Farm to School" foods on the Morris Area cafeteria menu are moving ahead.

On Tuesday morning, students of Morris Area ag teacher Natasha Mortenson husked sweet corn that will be part of the district's food service menu. It's one Minnesota-grown product that will be featured monthly on the on the menu, and more locally grown foods are expected to eventually become cafeteria staples, said Food Service Director Jeanine Bowman.

Morris Area ag students also will be stocking a green house on the campus and will be trying out different food production methods, with the fruits of their labors possibly showing up on cafeteria tables.

"If we can work it in, that's what we're going to do," Bowman said.

The food service is featuring one local food item per month, and a display will be set up for each featured food, Bowman said.

It's a difficult task give the quantities of food involved and the current pricing and distribution structure, which would make a wholesale switch to local goods cost prohibitive.

But the move to locally grown foods has been gaining traction, as well as turning some heads. Morris Area custodian Larry Anderson grew peppers and cabbages that he brought in. The cabbage was used to make cole slaw, and students were surprised that Anderson's cabbage were about twice the size of the heads that can be found in grocery stores, Bowman said.

Education is an especially important part of the move to local foods, Mortenson said.

"I want them to get their hands on food and know that this came from a field," Mortenson said, noting that many young people, even in this ag-rich area, don't understand how food ends up in grocery aisles.

In the greenhouse, Morris Area ag students will work with hydroponic growing and other unique processes, such as growing potatoes in barrels.

"I want them to make their own food," Mortenson said. "It's better for them, and they learn about all the good things that happen in agriculture."

Mortenson credited Bowman, who is doing the same things in her dual role as Food Service Director for Benson schools, for pushing ahead on local foods initiatives. For example, Bowman said she uses only wild rice grown in Minnesota because it's produced in the state, is healthy and costs roughly the same as whole white rice.

Now, local foods are used primarily in the schools' salad bars, but more and more local foods are likely to be showing up in cafeteria lines, Bowman said.

The schools' are incorporating honey grown in the area, and dinner buns the food service purchases are made from grain that is grown and ground in the region. Bison meat produced in Minnesota also is being incorporated with hamburger, she said.

Small efforts are a start, and the effects could multiply once results are noticeable, Mortenson said.

"I've completely bought into local foods," she said. "It's better for you and I really think it helps local farmers. People who don't farm as much land can make more money than they think. I think it's great for the kids and great for the school."