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Heather Sauder works in the kitchen in the back room of the Benson Bakery. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

Benson: Benson Bakery takes pride in delivering local products to schools

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The Benson Bakery may look like a small business, but Toby Johannessen and his staff can bake hundreds of dozens of whole grain rolls in a single day.

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They had an order like that not too long ago, when the Willmar, New London-Spicer and Montevideo school lunch programs asked for rolls made with locally grown grains.

Johannessen said he's only too happy to send his products to schools and encourage a focus on local foods.

He sees the interest in local foods among his regular customers, too.

"People are putting their economics where their heart is," he said. Local food is fresher, healthier and better for the economy, he added.

Finding local food suppliers has been a focus for some time for the Willmar School District. Now that Willmar is cooperating with NL-S and Montevideo, director Annette Derouin has expanded that effort to all three districts. Other districts in the area also look for local suppliers when possible.

In addition to the rolls from Benson, schools have served students apples, cheese, squash, bison and wild rice from Minnesota sources. They also order whole foods rather than processed foods as much as possible from government commodity programs.

Johannessen said he has used wheat grown in the Hancock area in the past, but that grower had his grain milled at a mill in Freeport that burned down recently. Dry Weather Creek farm near Milan mills its own flour, and he plans to visit that mill soon, so he can see their operation.

One challenge in using local grains is varying protein content, he said. The protein and gluten content of flour is very important in the baking process. Large producers usually provide a more consistent, balanced protein count.

Johannessen is the third-generation owner of the bakery. His grandfather bought the business in 1932. His father took it over in 1972, and he bought it from his father in 1995.

The building in downtown Benson was built as a bakery in 1900 and has been operating as one ever since.

"Dad always insisted on good equipment," Johannessen, and that helps make 500 dozen whole-grain rolls for the schools in one day, plus all his usual orders, possible.

An amazing machine called a bun rounder will take a flattened lump of dough and in a few seconds make a couple dozen perfectly rounded buns or dinner rolls. That and high-volume ovens make the large orders go smoothly, he said.

About 20 percent of the bakery's sales are to wholesale customers, he said. Many schools in the area order from the bakery at least a couple times a year. Benson and Morris schools order more often, perhaps once a month. Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg School District is another customer.

In a way, baking for school lunch programs is a return to the bakery's past. Years ago, the bakery delivered baked goods to the Benson and Hancock schools every day. Then, school districts began using wholesalers. Now, they're looking again toward local suppliers.

"I think it's a much healthier alternative," Johannessen said. "Here, we can control the ingredients." He has always used unbleached, un-bromated flour, he said, because he believes it's healthier.

"I think we're very excited about having the opportunity to serve the local community and help the economy," he said. "It gives us a sense of pride in what we're doing."

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Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340
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