Surrounded by friends at a lunch table at Mahtomedi High School, Mark Oldani has breezed through pop quizzes.
These exams do not cover algebra or astronomy; they’re all about apples. The 17-year-old senior has been questioned on whether he can properly identify the variety of round fruit offered from Pine Tree Apple Orchard on any given school day.
“I’m usually right,” says Oldani, who draws the correct answers from his summer job experience at the orchard.
Apples from the Dellwood orchard have fit into both Mahtomedi and White Bear Lake public schools’ involvement in the national Farm to School program. With carrots from Andover and wild rice from Bemidji, Mahtomedi has worked to expanded its offering of fresh fruit and vegetables from local growers. Now in its seventh year, the school’s Farm to School program includes about 25 percent of the schools’ fall produce.
Farm to School (farmtoschool.org) connects schools (K-12) and local farms with the objectives of serving healthy meals, improving student nutrition, providing agriculture, health and nutrition education opportunities, and supporting local and regional farmers. Each independent school district defines its own direction or the level of commitment it pursues. For example, Oneka Elementary School in Hugo took the initiative to plant 30 apple trees on site that should start flowering next year, and students run their own healthy snack cart from which two items like fruit or rice cakes can be purchased for a fixed rate of 75 cents each morning break.
“The consumption of our local apples is much higher than the rest of the year when we can’t get local apples,” Mahtomedi district supervisor of nutrition Linda Nordgren says. “The students notice a definite quality difference in the local products as well.”
Mahtomedi has worked to make students aware of where their food comes from with special events and informational signs about the farms near the lunch line.
“We let them know that this is where it comes from, and this is why it’s good to eat these things, and what the benefits they get from those things are,” Nordgren says.
The broader benefit is school dollars being spent on local businesses. “We currently are in conversations with a farm in Cannon Falls that supplies organic meat and cheese from grass-fed animals, producing products that are hormone- and nitrate-free,” says Susan Richardson, director of nutrition services at White Bear Lake and Roseville schools. “I will be approaching the new hot house that is being built in St. Paul this year regarding purchasing organics over winter,” which will supplement the squash, vegetables and fruits that all come from farms in Minnesota and western Wisconsin in White Bear Lake schools.
Pine Tree Apple Orchard, the third largest in Minnesota, delivers to 11 school districts in the north Twin Cities metro area, from Stillwater to North St. Paul, says Bill Jacobson of Pine Tree Apple Orchard, who coordinates with school districts on whole-sale production.
“The beauty is the flexibility from the schools,” Jacobson says. “We guarantee a good, tasty apple, and we have the flexibility to say what is ready when. And it’s at a fair price, so everyone wins.”
Jacobson, who provides apples to White Bear Lake and Mahtomedi through January, says Farm to School provides growers with the infrastructure and expertise to open new distribution channels. “It’s a great opportunity for growers to hook up with the community,” Jacobson says.
Oldani’s favorite offering is apples, but he enjoys the buffet of healthy options, including pineapple (not local) and cucumbers (local).
“In the last three years, they’ve worked on it and gotten rid of a lot of the unhealthy things like soda and put in more healthy items,” he says.
The fresh fruit and vegetables are in the snack line amid the slowly fading Pop-Tarts, Goldfish and nachos, Oldani says.
A health teacher at Mahtomedi High School says having healthy options next to the junk food is OK. “We teach choices and consequences, and they make those choices in school,” says Corey Ratzloff, who has been at Mahtomedi for 13 years. “Do they always make the right choice? It’s not all good or all bad. I’m not sure they should be all [healthy] choices, because they will be bombarded with bad choices in … the real world.”
Ratzloff says the Farm to School program is like night and day compared with a decade ago when Mahtomedi used to offer Taco Bell to students.
“In my opinion, the biggest benefit from doing Farm to School is the increased value of providing meals to students where there is a perceived notion that the food is healthier,” Richardson says. “I do believe pesticides are a contributing factor to cancer, and I would love nothing better than to know what we are feeding the students will not contribute to the disease. I think the Farm to School effort brings that message with it to our school districts.”