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Demand grows for local produce in Minn. schools, but a recipe is needed for the supply side challenges

Lyle Lundstrum hand plants onions last week at the Lundstrum Vegetables farm located north of Bird Island in Renville County. Schools can support the local foods economy by being more flexible to accommodate the needs of local growers, he said, adding that too many young people are unaware of where their food comes from and just how wonderful fresh raised goods really can taste. Lundstrum plants vegetables with his wife, Pam, top, seen last week while planting potatoes. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

OLIVIA -- You can lead a child to locally raised broccoli, and they will eat and enjoy it.

Just ask food service directors Laurie Milbrandt of the Redwood Area Schools or Margaret Flemming with the BOLD School District.

They've been introducing students to a delectable buffet of locally raised foods -- from apples and fresh sweet corn to zucchini -- with good results, they told participants in a Farm to School workshop April 24 in Olivia. The Redwood-Renville County Public Health Services hosted the event to promote the growth of Farm to School markets in the two counties.

Flemming recommends starting out small, adding one new item a week. "They can't wait to see it when it starts coming,'' she said.

Yet in some ways, it can be easier to introduce children to broccoli than it is for local growers to supply it to schools.

"There needs to be more flexibility,'' said Lyle Lundstrum of Lundstrum Vegetables in rural Bird Island. He was reached after the workshop, as he and his wife Pam planted their gardens.

They developed their local foods business as their children grew and helped with the work. Lyle retired from farming and Pam from teaching so that they can devote themselves full time to tending to the business.

They've seen success selling their produce at farmers markets in Willmar and Hutchinson, and last year through a community-supported agriculture venture. They were hoping to sign up 15 or 20 members and ended up with 50.

They'd love to sell more goods to schools in the area, but said schools need to do more to accommodate local growers. One district rejected apples the Lundstrums grew. They were not uniform in size.

Some districts will not tolerate any sort of blemishes on food.

Many districts are too insistent on requiring that large quantities of produce be available at set dates, said the Lundstrums. Smaller, local growers cannot risk committing football field-sized gardens to one vegetable or one customer, they explained.

They suggest that schools should be more willing to take the surplus produce when it's available.

The Lundstrums have developed exactly that sort of relationship with the RC Hospital & Clinics in Olivia. "If all of a sudden one week you have 200 muskmelons, they are willing to put that on the menu,'' Pam Lundstrum said.

The growers also caution that local food producers cannot compete in pricing with the large, commercial growers. Economy of scale and labor costs make it impossible for them do so, they noted.

Schools will find that local growers are more than willing to supply schools with the produce they can, and not just because of the economic incentives. The Lundstrums said their experience in local foods has shown them that too many young people are unaware of where their food comes from and just how wonderful fresh raised goods really are.

"We need to re-educate them,'' Pam Lundstrum said.

There's lots of interest in doing so, as evidenced by the discussion at the Farm to School workshop. Host Michelle Breidenbach said the Farm to School initiative is about much more than good nutrition and food. It's also about education, and the opportunity to connect students with farmers and let them see what it's all about.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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