Farm to School Programs are Making Students Healthier

Farm to School Programs are Making Students Healthier

Nonprofits help farmers bring fresh local food to your children’s lunch table.

On a recent morning, I visited the Good Acre on Larpenteur Avenue in Falcon Heights, where a dozen or so volunteers were helping pack boxes for the week’s 500-member community supported agriculture (CSA) program. They were in a large, cool warehouse, and a small-batch producer was making pickles in the hub’s well-appointed commercial kitchen.

Out in the hoop houses, ginger and turmeric were thriving, proving that farmers can grow these lucrative crops despite our harsh winters. Tomato and berry plants were laden with ripening fruit. The bustling center’s parking lot was full; the place was humming with activity.

The Good Acre occupies a distinctive new building set amid fields of crops, many owned by the University of Minnesota and used for agricultural research.

What’s inside is a food hub. There are a few hundred of them in the U.S., and their number is increasing. From a wholesaler’s perspective, a food hub is something like an aggregator, forwarder and expeditor. It’s both a facility and a service provider that has the tools, equipment, space, and marketing expertise to allow small farmers to reach new buyers. It enables them to meet regulatory standards for preparing and storing their produce for new markets.

A farmer can easily sell her apples or blueberries or corn at the farm in a simple farm stand. But to sell to schools, hospitals, or places like corporate lunchrooms, food safety laws are tougher and compliance is strictly monitored. Rules for washing, culling, processing, and storing are mandatory, and even good-sized farms don’t always have the equipment and facilities to allow them to meet these important regulatory standards.

Enter food hubs—places that can serve many small farmers from a single site. The Good Acre is a great example. It is a fully equipped 4,700-square-foot warehouse, with two loading docks, produce washing equipment, and large worktables. The building also houses cold-storage rooms and a 5,000-cubic-foot freezer, all available for farmers to rent by the pallet. Its safety-compliant, certified-organic commercial kitchen is available by the hour for making prepared foods from fresh produce, like salsa or jam. A spacious, sunny meeting room is used for training and workshops. The demonstration garden helps small farmers explore the possibilities of new crops and observe new practices. And a robust marketing and community engagement program brings cooks, farmers, families, and food service workers to the hub for everything from vocational education and farmer training programs to evening cooking classes.

Rhys Williams, the Good Acre’s executive director, had a career in farming and knows the business. The team also includes a marketing manager, sales director, and kitchen coordinator, among other paid staff. “Parents today want healthy, good food on their children’s lunch trays,” Williams says. This desire is helping the Good Acre connect with and support school nutrition experts and lunchroom personnel as they seek out locally sourced food for cafeterias.

The Good Acre sells local produce to 20 school districts. Schools can participate in training at the Good Acres kitchens, get recipe ideas for using in-season produce, and learn about the farmers involved so students know where their food is coming from. This represents significant growth over last year, when the program reached 14 school districts. Last year, the Good Acre sold schools 90,000 pounds of fresh local food, putting more dollars into farmers’ pockets, and serving nutritious, fresh food to children.

Frogtown Farm, a 5-acre organic farm in St. Paul, works with the Good Acre. It is a demonstration farm whose mission is educational, helping neighbors take advantage of green space while offering engagement and learning opportunities based on growing, harvesting, cooking, and enjoying fresh food. The majority of Frogtown Farm’s produce goes to the Feeding Frogtown food distribution program. The farm’s produce also is distributed at Market Saturdays and to Frogtown and Rondo residents who take part in a workshare program. It’s a beautiful farm.

The Good Acre supports Frogtown by providing washing, processing, and storage capabilities. At the height of Minnesota’s short growing season, more produce and fruit is harvested than can be immediately distributed. By trucking its food to the Good Acre, Frogtown Farm loses less of its harvest to waste or decay. At some point, the 3-year-old Frogtown Farm may have its own processing and storage facilities, but for now “without the Good Acre we would probably lose this food,” says Shelby Rutzick, of Frogtown’s staff.

Many of the Good Acre’s farmers are new to agriculture, are immigrants, or are farmers who want to boost their profit margin. For these clients, the Good Acre acts as an economic development engine, connecting farmers to markets, helping farmers share ideas and learn best practices, and providing equipment and facilities to conserve and sell more of the year’s harvest.

For consumers, the Good Acre’s programs mean that more people have access to fresher food that is locally produced and that contributes to local economies. Families, schools, and students are just a few of the beneficiaries of the local food movement.

Local economies, neighborhoods, and our own health all can benefit, as well. Ask your own children’s school what they’re doing to put fresh, local food on the lunch table.

Sarah Lutman is a St. Paul-based independent consultant and writer for clients in the cultural, media and philanthropic sectors.