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Willmar Model brings kids local foods

Youngsters in the Willmar, Minn., school district are like kids everywhere: they love sweet corn and slices of apples and don’t care so much for squash. The difference for these students is that the corn, apples, squash and even fresh bison comes from farms and orchards in Kandiyohi County and the surrounding areas. It’s not processed, frozen or canned and trucked in from California, Texas or Peru.

The Willmar Model, as it is called, is an ambitious attempt at a farm-to-school program in Minnesota, part of a national movement to get children to eat healthy, locally grown foods while helping nearby producers find new markets.

“We want to use foods that are available locally, but don’t have a distribution system,” said Lynn Mader, a dietician and University of Minnesota extension agent who works with the Willmar district. “I locate farmers or local products and determine ways to get them in the school system.”

Mader is a forager. She connects the school with places like J and L Bison Ranch, where John and Leila Arndt raise a herd of 300 animals that are “leaner and healthier than beef, turkey and chicken and [are] recognized for [their] benefits to the heart!” The kids eat bison for lunch and then get a field trip to the ranch, where they can make the connection between farm and plate.

Thirty-nine states have developed farm-to-school programs that are now active in 2,000 school districts, according to the National Farm to School Project. The 2008 Farm Bill, passed by Congress a few months ago, funded a fresh fruit and vegetable program to the tune of $1 billion for the next five years.

In Minnesota, districts in Hopkins, St. Paul, Little Falls and elsewhere are involved. The Little Falls district won a 2008 Victory Against Hunger award from the Congressional Hunger Center for its program.

Folks working in Willmar are creating a tool kit for food service directors and other managers. Foods include dry beans, cabbage, cheese, honey, tomatoes, potatoes and wild rice. Minnesota’s harsh climate is a challenge; most of the foods are side dishes that can be grown in the winter (like winter wheat) or stored (like honey).  And locally grown side dishes don’t break the school’s food budget.

“There is a long planning process,” Mader said. “You are on a cycle like a farmer. In the spring you should be deciding what to order for the following school year.”

The last major hurdle is known by cooks everywhere: getting kids to eat vegetables and fruit. Plenty of taste testing is done; for example, cabbage is made into creamy coleslaw.

“One kid said, ‘Hey, this tastes just like KFC!'” Mader said.

And cleaned his plate.

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