WILLMAR -- Every month for the past three years, students in the Willmar School District have had a chance to eat locally produced foods through the Farm to School program.
This week, it was cheese made from Minnesota milk, melted on top of a chicken patty and stuck in a bun along with a slice of turkey ham. The chicken cordon bleu sandwiches were a hit with many of the students at Kennedy Elementary School.
"I wish I knew how this sandwich was made," one first-grader said as she polished off her sandwich. Others had their mouths full and just nodded their approval.
Last fall, students ate corn on the cob from Larson Farms of Olivia and wild rice from the Red Lake area in northwestern Minnesota, said Annette Derouin, director of food and nutrition services for the school district.
Later this spring, they'll eat whole wheat dinner rolls made with wheat from the Milan area, she said. As usual, the program will close out the school year with bison hot dogs from J&L Bison Ranch a few miles northwest of Willmar.
The cheese on the sandwiches was made by Bongards' Creameries, which uses only milk from Minnesota cows, Derouin said. She knows; she doublechecked.
The Willmar program was a pioneer in Farm to School, and other districts around the state are joining in the effort. The program introduces students to foods grown in Minnesota and gives schools a chance to teach children about how food is raised. It also encourages healthy eating habits.
Kindra Carlson, whose family operates Carlson Dairies near Pennock, circulated from table to table in the Kennedy cafeteria Wednesday carrying an inflatable cow and a calf-feeding bottle.
Carlson showed the children pictures from her farm and let the children "feed" the cow with the bottle.
The cow was so popular that one little boy stopped to kiss it on the nose.
Carlson and Nancy Winter, a nutrition education assistant with the University of Minnesota Extension Service, talked to the children about dairy products. A similar team spent the day at Roosevelt Elementary.
Winter, wearing a cow print apron, periodically visits classrooms to teach children about nutrition.
"What on your tray is made from a cow?" Winter asked a group of first-graders. She asked another group what calcium did for them. They remembered from her classroom visit that it helps build strong bones and teeth.
"It's a good collaboration," Derouin said of the assistance she gets from the Extension Service and area farmers. Many children don't have direct contact with farms through their families, and it's good for them to meet farmers and hear about their lives, she added.
Derouin said they gauge the popularity of some of the Farm to School offerings by how many children choose the alternate menu choice. At Kennedy, a few more than usual chose the alternate yogurt parfaits. They are usually popular choice, though -- a former Farm to School offering that migrated to the regular menu.
Farm to School is a national network of producers and educational institutions which encourages closer relationships between schools and local food producers.
Willmar was one of the first in the state to regularly turn to local growers for school lunch items. Under Derouin's direction it has been a leader in the program.
A how-to kit developed by Derouin is available to other Minnesota schools interested in developing a program. The kit helps them avoid some of the roadblocks she encountered as she developed Willmar's program.